The political skirmish over what exactly happened in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was on display on Capitol Hill this week, with the Republican-led House Oversight Committee holding a predictably contentious first hearing into the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
A month before the presidential election, Republicans see the Libya attack as a political vulnerability for President Obama. GOP nominee Mitt Romney and other officials are questioning whether the administration underestimated the threat to the Benghazi facility and have accused officials of trying to avoid linking it to terrorism.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee who has bedeviled the White House with a slew of hearings, stated on Wednesday: The State Department is in “the process of coming clean about what occurred in Benghazi.” Issa says the Obama administration deliberately misled the public by connecting the attack to a video mocking the prophet Muhammad that sparked protests across the Muslim world.
State Department officials said on Tuesday they never concluded the attack was a protest that escalated out of control. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is the only senior official who has made that connection.
Part of the confusion over what happened and why stems from the chaos of the events as they unfolded. But it has been compounded by Republican and Democratic attempts to use the incident for partisan gain, and by a media more eager to report on the political back-and-forth than to pinpoint what actually happened.
Starting from Romney’s move to condemn the Obama administration for apologizing for America and Obama’s claim that Romney may have spoken too soon, the debate over what happened in Benghazi has been explicitly politicized.
“This latest assault can’t be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long. No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists,” Romney said at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday.
Rice’s remarks were consistent with the best information available to administration officials at the time, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy told the House committee. At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said, “We’ve been very forthright all along on the information we’ve had” and “discussed all along that our assessments are preliminary and they will change.”
Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and their spokespeople never explicitly attributed the attack in Libya to either a terrorist plot or a spontaneous protest. But in their initial responses to the attacks, they sowed confusion by denouncing the attack in Benghazi and the video in the same breath.
The White House has also been under pressure to respond to Romney’s reaction to the crisis. Romney’s late-night denunciation of a Cairo Embassy statement on the protests began a national conversation about free speech and religious tolerance.
Romney immediately linked the attacks in Egypt and Libya. “It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” Romney said. The next day, before the president had gravely addressed the attack in a Rose Garden statement, Romney stood before news cameras to say “an apology for America is never the right course.”
Romney’s comments drove the political news cycle for days and influenced the questions journalists put to administration officials. A few hours after Romney’s news conference, Obama jumped into the partisan fray with a blast to CBS News’ Steve Kroft.
“It appears that Governor Romney didn’t have his facts right” regarding the situation in Cairo, Obama said. “There's a broader lesson to be learned here, and Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
Administration officials didn’t start defining the incident in Benghazi as a terrorist attack until Sept. 19, when Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told Congress it was “a terrorist attack on our embassy.” Olsen emphasized that investigations were ongoing, and it wasn’t clear whether the attack had been preplanned.
Yet even after the definition of the attacks started to solidify, the administration continued to engage with the conversation Romney started.
In his speech at the United Nations—six days after Olsen called the incident a terrorist attack—Obama used the story of the slain Stevens to frame remarks on religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and American values.
“There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy,” the president told world leaders. Obama’s remarks addressed protests around the world. But they also addressed a discussion his political opponents were having at home.