Benghazi attack: ‘Terrorists’ or ‘extremists’?

Congressional Republicans are digging into what the Obama administration knew about the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four American officials. The focus on UN Ambassador Susan Rice – a possible Secretary of State – has become very political.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Ambassador Susan Rice speaking at the United Nations in August. In a robust defense of Rice, President Barack Obama said it was "outrageous" for Republican senators to target her over her response to the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya that left four Americans dead.

Was the 9/11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, carried out by “terrorists” or by “extremists”? In the supercharged political atmosphere following a violent episode in which a US ambassador and three other Americans were killed, the chosen rhetoric definitely matters.

It gets to what the Obama administration knew and when it knew it, whether it was adequately prepared for the possibility of attack at a time when a crude anti-Islam YouTube video was roiling the volatile region, and whether the White House might have downplayed the attack during the final weeks of a hotly-contested presidential race.

Friday’s closed congressional hearings featuring now-disgraced former CIA director David Petraeus did little to clear things up.

IN PICTURES: Libya's critical transition

Based on lawmakers’ comments after Petraeus’ private testimony, as well as public statements by intelligence officials in the weeks following the attack, the CIA did determine early on that the violence involving heavy weapons was – by definition – carried out by terrorists.

But the first official public statements used the word “extremists” – both to conceal intelligence-gathering sources and methods (so as not to reveal the terrorist groups it was tracking) and also because that was seen as the more inclusive word.

That was the basis on which United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice described the situation on Sunday TV talk shows five days after the attack – the talking points provided her by intelligence officials – which has gotten her in hot water with some Republican lawmakers, in turn leading to President Obama’s sharp-worded defense of the woman said to be at the top of his list to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A senior US official familiar with the drafting of the talking points used by Amb. Rice told reporters in Washington that they “reflected what was known at the time” and “were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations or play down that this was an attack.”

That has not satisfied congressional Republicans still wanting to know who changed the talking points.

“It’s still not clear how the talking points emerged,” Rep. Peter King, (R) of New York, a member of the House intelligence committee, said after the briefing by Petraeus. “No one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points.”

Several news sources have obtained the talking points, which include this relevant passage: “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”

In retrospect, some officials have said, “opportunistically” would have been a better word than “spontaneously.”

The White House denies making any changes to the talking points.

"We were provided with points by the intelligence community that represented their assessment," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Saturday aboard Air Force One taking President Obama to the East Asia Summit. "The only edit made by the White House was the factual edit about how to refer to the facility.” 

In any case, the issue is unlikely to fade.

Sen. John McCain – along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, he’s pushed hardest against Rice – wants to create a special Watergate-type committee to continue the investigation of how the Obama administration has handled Benghazi. Presumably, Sen. McCain would be this committee’s senior Republican – important to him, perhaps, because Senate term limit rules prevent him from continuing to hold a similar position on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Although Obama has strongly defended Susan Rice, her position in his second term remains unclear.

“Even in a town that rewards sharp elbows and brusque personalities, Rice has managed to make an impressive array of enemies – on Capitol Hill, in Foggy Bottom, and abroad,” writes Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. “Particularly in comparison with the other person often mentioned for the job, Sen. John Kerry, she can be a most undiplomatic diplomat, and there likely aren’t enough Republican or Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm her.”

Democrats in Congress – particularly women lawmakers – are standing up for Rice.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the growing criticism of Rice "is almost as if the attempt is to assassinate her character."

A group of women in the House suggested Friday that the Republican attack on Rice smacks of sexism and racism, the Associated Press reports.

The Democratic women directed particular ire against McCain, who said Rice was "not being very bright" in her comments, according to the AP. The women pointed out that Rice was a Rhodes Scholar who graduated tops in her Stanford University class whereas McCain was in the bottom of his class at the US Naval Academy.

IN PICTURES: Libya's critical transition

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