Presidential debate: Do new reports on Libya change the story?

Ahead of Monday's presidential debate on foreign policy, a new narrative is emerging about why the White House waited so long to describe the Sept. 11 attack in Libya as a terrorist attack.

Eric Gay/AP
A worker vacuums as the set for Monday's presidential debate is prepared, Oct. 21, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will hold their final debate on foreign policy.

Why did it take the Obama administration so long to describe the Sept. 11 attack that killed ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans as the work of organized Islamist insurgents?

That’s a central question bearing on whether President Obama is weak in foreign policy, as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney charges. A clear picture of the behind-the-scenes action here may not emerge until histories are written years hence. But new reports on the eve of the third and final presidential debate suggest that at least some of the cause of the delay stemmed from the nature of intelligence community reports to the president on the tragedy.

Here’s what we know at the moment: On Sept. 16, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on five TV talk shows and generally ascribed the attack to the ad hoc action of mobs infuriated by a crude anti-Islamic video made in the US. She said evidence gathered to that point indicated no premeditation on the part of attackers, but she did add that “extremists” might have escalated the violence once it began.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Rice took this line because that’s what the CIA was saying at the time. For more than a week, the daily briefing prepared for the president by the intelligence community held that the assault grew out of a spontaneous demonstration, write Journal reporters Adam Enous and Siobhan Gorham.

“The CIA was consistent from Sept. 13 to Sept. 21 that the attack evolved from a protest,” they write.

CIA analysts began to doubt this conclusion as more evidence about the confusing situation worked its way up through the intelligence chain. Lower level intelligence officials suspected the assertion about protests was outdated even as Rice was making the rounds of her Sunday talk show appearances, according to a story by reporter Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

Given that the CIA began with only sketchy reports of what had happened in Benghazi, and that US operatives arrived on scene days later to sift evidence, it may be only natural that the agency’s story has shifted, according to intelligence officials quoted in the Times story.

As early as Sept. 20, the agency concluded that there hadn’t been a protest in Benghazi prior to the attack. But the daily brief for the president, the source from which top officials derive their view of what’s going on in the world, didn’t change to reflect this until the morning of Sept. 22.

By Sept. 27, the White House had changed its talking points on this sensitive issue. That day Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at a Pentagon news conference described the killings as a “terrorist attack."

Since then, Republicans have been adamant that White House was either confused about the incident or trying to mislead the American people.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said during an appearance on MSNBC on Oct. 22 that he had been told “early on, this was a militia."

“You don’t have a riot with heavy weapons that goes on for seven hours in a preplanned fashion,” said Senator Graham.

If the White House truly believes that it was misled by CIA reports, it needs to fire somebody, said Graham. He further indicated that videos of the attack and news reports quickly indicated that it would have been difficult for the killings to have been the work of a mob, and that the White House should have taken these sources of information into account.

Obama officials have countered that they are describing the situation as they know it in a transparent manner to Congress and the public, and that the investigation into the tragedy is still unfolding.

“We’re getting to the bottom of it. And we need to work this investigation through. It’s really important that we not politicize the process,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter on NBC’s “Today” show Oct. 22.

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