Is Libya terrorist attack 'debacle' hurting Obama?

The White House and the Obama campaign are under fire for the administration's handling of the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other embassy personnel. The Romney campaign is attacking Obama on the issue.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, under secretary for management at the State Department, answers questions during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday regarding the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The first question in the vice presidential debate this week – the one that is becoming most troublesome for the Obama-Biden ticket – was about Libya and the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

The essence of the query to Vice President Joe Biden was as old as Watergate: “What did you know and when did you know it?”

That is, shouldn’t you have anticipated the possibility of a terrorist attack, especially on the anniversary of 9/11 when US Ambassador Christopher Stevens made what turned out to be a fatal visit to Benghazi, an area known to include Al Qaeda sympathizers?

And why did the administration persist in describing the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other embassy personnel as tied to protests across the region to a crude anti-Islam YouTube video – protests, as UN Ambassador Susan Rice said some days later, that "seems to have been hijacked … by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons.”

IN PICTURES: Libya's critical transition

As it turns out, there were no protests tied to the offensive video, and the attack by terrorists seems obviously to have been pre-planned and well-executed against a lightly-defended facility. What’s more, according to congressional testimony this past week, requests for beefed-up security had been made to the State Department.

Mr. Biden’s answer to debate moderator Martha Raddatz: “We weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security.”

But as Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler reported Friday, “Biden’s bold statement was directly contradicted by State Department officials just this week, in testimony before a congressional panel and in unclassified cables released by a congressional committee.”

“All of us at post were in sync that we wanted these resources,” said Eric Nordstrom, the top regional security officer in Libya earlier this year. A Utah National Guardsman who led a security team, Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, said: “We felt great frustration that those requests were ignored or just never met.”

The story changed, Biden tried to explain, as more information became available.

“We said exactly what the intelligence community told us that they knew,” Biden said. “That was the assessment. And as the intelligence community changed their view, we made it clear they changed their view.”

That is probably true, and it’s no doubt true that security at diplomatic facilities around the world is handled by the State Department, not the White House.

Still, the buck stops with the president. And Obama no doubt will be faced with the same kind of questioning Biden was when he meets Mitt Romney for the second presidential debate – to be held this coming Tuesday in town hall format and scheduled to include questions on foreign policy and national security.

Meanwhile, critics are calling the Libya attack and the way it was handled by the administration a “debacle” – as columnists David Brooks of the New York Times and Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post both did Friday.

Not surprisingly, the Romney campaign is weighing in strongly as well.

"They keep changing their story," Ryan said at a campaign stop in Ohio Friday. "This is not what leadership looks like.”

"The vice president directly contradicted the sworn testimony of State Department officials," Romney said in Virginia. "He's doubling down on denial. And we need to understand exactly what happened as opposed to just have people brush this aside. When the vice president of the United States directly contradicts the testimony, sworn testimony of State Department officials, American citizens have a right to know just what's going on. And we're going to find out."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has promised a thorough investigation. In the Democrat-controlled Senate, Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, chairman and senior Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, announced their own investigation Friday.

“We intend to examine the circumstances before, during, and after the attack, including threat awareness, U.S. security needs for diplomatic personnel in Benghazi and Libya, and communications among the intelligence community, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the White House,” Lieberman and Collins said in a joint statement.

The politics of all of this is obvious.

The House committee hearing at which the State Department officials testified about security in Benghazi, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had a highly-partisan tone.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, senior committee Democrat has complained to Issa that key documents were withheld from committee Democrats and that no classified briefing was held for committee members.

“I have grave concerns about the way [Wednesday’s] hearing devolved into a disorganized, partisan, and absurd spectacle when it should have been a serious and responsible investigation of the attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans,” Rep. Cummings wrote to Issa.

As the attack in Benghazi was underway last month, Romney made what many analysts – including many Republicans – found to be snap and intemperate comments in the middle of a diplomatic crisis. The Obama campaign – including Biden in his debate Thursday night – tried to make the same charge regarding Romney’s more recent comments about the administration’s response to the attack.

That is unlikely to stick, given the revelations – and the way the administration has handled them – over the past month.

Romney has changed his campaign emphasis on the controversy in one way, reports the Associated Press.

At the request of the mother of a former Navy SEAL killed in Libya along with Ambassador Stevens, Romney has agreed to stop talking about her son during his political campaign.

IN PICTURES: Libya's critical transition

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