Nearly two weeks after promising to launch a multilayered critique of President Obama's handling of the Arab Spring, Mitt Romney has remained oddly silent even as evidence grows the administration misled the country about the motives behind the lethal attack in Libya that left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead.
Romney branded the attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi a terrorist attack on Tuesday, beating Obama to the punch. But Romney still lags behind congressional Republicans, who have demanded answers with increasing intensity this week. Romney advisers did not predict a change in foreign-policy strategy.
Now the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is in the mix on a bipartisan basis, asking new questions about the administration’s handling of intelligence about possible attacks on diplomats on Sept. 11, whether that information was adequately shared, and what was the state of diplomatic security in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and other “high-threat environments.” Amid all this congressional action and skepticism, Romney has yet to pounce. The committee, through Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., deflected GOP attempts on Sept. 19 to pass legislation requiring administration answers on the Libya attacks.
The closest the Romney camp has come to firing a salvo at the administration is adviser Eric Fehrnstrom’s declaration on Thursday on Fox News that Obama and his team attempted to willfully “mislead” the country. Romney has not incorporated this criticism into his stump speeches, even as facts emerge showing that the administration bungled the reaction to the Libya killings by issuing statements that conflicted with the facts on the ground on its own intelligence. (See a timeline of administration statements on the Benghazi attack here.)
Those deaths, now believed to be the result of a premeditated terror attacks, were originally described as the consequence of spontaneous mob violence incited by a YouTube video mocking the Prophet Muhammad. It’s also now clear that Stevens worried about his safety in Libya and that FBI investigators have been unable to safely travel to Benghazi to begin their inquiry.
Romney's last chance to prosecute this case may come at the first presidential debate on Wednesday, creating an unexpected wrinkle in the 2012 campaign where foreign policy, thought to be a durable Obama strength, might provide Romney a pathway to shaking up the race. A Bloomberg poll taken after the Libya attacks indicated for the first time in months that Romney had gained ground on Obama in the foreign-policy sphere, opening up a 48 percent to 42 percent advantage on the question of who would be tougher on terrorism. A Fox News poll released late on Thursday, however, showed Obama leading Romney 52 percent to 41 percent on who would best handle foreign policy and 50 percent to 40 percent on who would best protect the country from a terrorist attack.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee late on Thursday joined five House committees and demanded a full accounting from the State Department. Kerry denied on Friday that the committee launched a formal investigation, as Republicans have suggested. He described the second round of questions as run-of-the-mill congressional oversight, following on its original Sept. 17 request for information about the Libya attacks. Committee Republicans pressed for a second letter to the State Department as the administration’s explanations began to unravel.
“The Republicans are working overtime to try to exploit a very normal, run-of-the-course, administrative letter that we agreed to on a bipartisan basis on our committee simply to get some additional questions put in front of the State Department that are part of their already existing investigation,” Kerry told MSNBC. “This is not a challenge, it’s nothing new, it is not something out of the ordinary, and I agreed to do it as a matter of bipartisanship because we thought these were important questions that people ought to be examining. I am concerned with the way the Republicans are exploiting it. Yes, that’s inappropriate. All the Republicans can do or see is politics. All they can do is exploit it.”
Kerry is a key figure in the intensity of congressional curiosity about the Libya assaults. Not only is he in charge of how much the Foreign Relations Committee asks the administration to explain, he is also Obama’s designated stand-in for Romney in preparations for the first debate on Wednesday in Denver. In a curious bit of campaign coincidence, Kerry can play Romney in debate preparations, ask the Libya questions, and see how Obama responds.
But he made clear that the administration misstatements on Libya did not strike him as unusual or cause for concern. “It is a very complicated place,” Kerry said of Libya. “And with the craziness of that kind of incident, you need to know what happens. You have to go back and do that in a very methodical way. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to proceed very cautiously to understand exactly what went on.”
Click here to see the key questions and requests for information submitted by the full Foreign Relations Committee to Tom Nides, deputy secretary of State for management and resources. Kerry, a potential candidate for secretary of State if Obama is reelected, asked Nides to provide the information when Congress returns from its election-year fall break on Nov. 13.