As the presidential debates and the election approach, questions about how the Obama administration has handled the attack in Libya that killed the US ambassador on Sept. 11 have taken a harder political edge.
Eric Fehrenstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign (also speaking on Fox News), says, “President Obama needs to be held accountable for his administration's attempts to mislead the American people about what happened in Benghazi.”
The broader theme here (and in many other partisan and conservative blog comments) is that President Obama wasn’t just unaware of the threat in Libya and its violent outcome, but that he and his administration were purposely untruthful about what happened.
“Every day, it seems, he attempts to disqualify his opponent through deliberate and undeniable falsehoods,” Mr. Rove wrote. “This is only one side of a two-sided coin. The president can't tell the truth about his own record either.”
In predicting what he’ll be dealing with in his upcoming debates with Obama, Mr. Romney himself told “Good Morning America” earlier this month, "I think he's going to say a lot of things that aren't accurate."
The essence of the charge about Libya by Republicans is that the administration purposely tried to play down the incident by asserting that the attack was spontaneous, prompted by riots tied to the anti-Islam YouTube video that set off protests in Egypt, Libya, and many other Muslim countries across North Africa and the Middle East.
In the days following the attack, Ambassador Rice (and others in the administration) left the impression that the attackers took advantage of the riot to quickly gather weapons and target the relatively defenseless consulate.
Only later did administration officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, acknowledge that “terrorists” – some with possible ties (or at least supported by) Al Qaeda – likely were involved.
In calling for Rice’s resignation, Representative King told CNN Friday: “I believe that this was such a failure of foreign-policy messaging and leadership, such a misstatement of facts as was known at the time … for her to go on all of those shows and in effect be our spokesman for the world and be misinforming the American people and our allies and countries around the world – to me, somebody has to pay the price for this.”
The response from Democrats in Congress and the administration is that officials in fact have been forthcoming as more intelligence became available regarding the attack on the US consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other embassy personnel.
“I’m deeply disturbed by efforts to find the politics instead of finding the facts in this debate,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry said in a statement. “I’m particularly troubled by calls for Ambassador Rice’s resignation. She is a remarkable public servant for whom the liberation of the Libyan people has been a personal issue and public mission.”
Also on Friday, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., issued a statement that sought both to defend the administration and also to deflect some of the criticism from the White House.
“In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo,” reads the statement, attributed to Shawn Turner, director of public affairs for the Director of National Intelligence.
“As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists,” the statement continues. “It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to Al Qaeda. We continue to make progress, but there remain many unanswered questions. As more information becomes available our analysis will continue to evolve and we will obtain a more complete understanding of the circumstances surrounding the terrorist attack.”
Meanwhile, the political pummeling from the right continues.
Governor Huckabee, now a Fox News host, says today’s situation is worse than President Nixon being forced from office and President Clinton being impeached in the Monica Lewinsky affair, because “nobody was killed” in those earlier episodes.