Benghazi attack: Will Senate inquiry be a factor in presidential election?

Senator Lieberman says his committee will try to ‘find out what happened and why’ in the Benghazi attack, but panel staff say the information-gathering stage is unlikely to be finished by the election.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Chairman Joe Lieberman (Ind.) of Connecticut leads a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this Sept. 19 photo. Mr. Lieberman said he will try to 'find out what happened and why' in the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack.

In the midst of intense politicization of the Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a Senate committee has announced it will conduct what it assures will be an “independent, bipartisan” inquiry into the deadly assault.

The Benghazi attack is expected to dominate whatever portion of Tuesday night’s televised debate between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney veers from the economy to US foreign policy.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ind.) of Connecticut says his Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will try to “find out what happened and why” and to determine factors ranging from “threat awareness” before the attack to the adequacy of security provisions for US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi and in Libya as a whole.

Noting that four US diplomats, including the ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, lost their lives in the terrorist attack, Senator Lieberman and ranking committee member Susan Collins (R) of Maine said, “Those four men, their loved ones, and the American people deserve a full and fair accounting of why and how that tragedy occurred.”

It seems unlikely that the committee’s inquiry – which joins another investigation ordered by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – will get very far before an election that is just three weeks away. Committee staff say the inquiry is unlikely to move beyond the information-gathering stage before Nov. 6.

In the meantime, the Benghazi attack is becoming the central theme of Mr. Romney’s attack on Mr. Obama’s foreign policy – an area in which the president has enjoyed a clear advantage over Romney in opinion surveys.

But Obama’s lead over Romney in the area of handling international affairs is closing, recent polls show – a trend that appears to have convinced Republicans that attacking Obama for “weakness” by highlighting Benghazi is paying off.

Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan continues to hammer at Benghazi as the poster child for what he says is the administration’s “chaotic” and “crumbling” foreign policy.

Other Republicans have seized on Benghazi in advancing this theme of “failure.” Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that the administration took too long to come to the conclusion that what happened in Benghazi was a “terrorist attack,” adding, “Either they’re misleading the American people or incredibly incompetent.”

Republicans insist that information was available within hours of the deadly assault to confirm it was not the case of a riot appropriated by extremists, while the administration says investigations are still determining exactly what happened in Benghazi.

"To this day we do not have a complete picture, we do not have all the answers" as to what happened in Benghazi, Secretary Clinton said Friday. "There is much we still don't know, and I am the first to say that."

Administration officials say there was nothing mendacious about the initial characterization of the attack as one of extremists taking advantage of a demonstration outside the Benghazi consulate, especially since US diplomatic missions in a number of Islamic countries were the target at the same time of protests over an anti-Islam video made in the United States.

The administration did not characterize destruction of the Benghazi consulate as terrorism until Sept. 20, when White House spokesman Jay Carney told reports it was “self-evident” the Benghazi assault was a “terrorist attack.”

A few days later, in comments at a high-level United Nations meeting on the Sahel region of Africa, Clinton hinted that the administration was seeing the hand of North African terrorist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Benghazi attack.

The issue of Al Qaeda’s role in Benghazi is as politically fraught as any of the other aspects of the case. When it is raised, Democrats tend to point out that Obama has far surpassed former President George W. Bush in aggressively pursuing Al Qaeda’s leadership and regional affiliates, while Republicans say it was well known that Islamist extremists were operating in eastern Libya, and that the administration should have been prepared for something like what happened in Benghazi.

The question of preparedness leads to the issue of diplomatic security – another area of concern largely dominated by partisan rancor in the hothouse of a presidential and congressional campaign.

Republicans point to congressional testimony last week by some mid-level State Department officials that diplomats in Libya saw their requests for heightened security – including for Benghazi – turned down. Democrats counter that it is Republicans in Congress, including Congressman Ryan, who have engineered hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the State Department’s diplomatic security budget over recent years, even as the US has been called on to expand its diplomatic presence in increasingly volatile and dangerous places, such as Benghazi.

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