Republicans Press Obama for Clarity on Libya Attack

The administration’s assessment of the Benghazi consulate attack confuses his opponents.

Republican senator John McCain of Arizona ask a question during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, December 2, 2010
Republican senator John McCain of Arizona ask a question during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee in Washington DC, December 2, 2010 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

On September 11, the American diplomatic community suffered a horrible loss. The nation’s ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was found dead in the United States consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, apparently succumbed to smoke from fire and heavy weapons that were used in attacking the building. 

The personal tragedy of that day has snowballed into one of the most politically embarrassing controversies that the Obama Administration has faced during its tenure. In the weeks since the attack transpired, the tune of White House officials has changed several times on what exactly caused the death of Chris Stevens and on whether the attack was a deliberate and coordinated act of terrorism.

In the early days of the investigation, administration officials were quick to cite the production of an anti-Islam film as the reason for the violence in Benghazi. Susan Rice, the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, carried that message with her last weekend on the Sunday morning talk shows, telling CBS News’ Bob Schieffer that the assault on the consulate building was carried out in the heat of the moment by a group of extremists who sought to take advantage of the protests.

Rice left many viewers with the impression that terrorism was not considered as a possibility, an omission that raised the fury of opposition Republicans who alleged that the administration was trying to minimize the damage two months before the presidential election.

Yet a mere three days later, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, speaking to members of Congress, was far more explicit in his assessment. Asked whether Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an act of terrorism, Matthew Olsen replied, “I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the terrorism argument further, suggesting that the militants in Benghazi may have had some type of connection with the broader Al Qaeda movement.

The mixed messaging has given Republicans the opportunity they have been looking for. Senator John McCain, Obama’s challenger in the 2008 elections, chastised the administration’s handling of the Libya crisis as “unbelievable.” Senator Susan Collins, a top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, expressed her disbelief that the White House took so long to call the incident a terrorist attack. Senators Bob Corker and Johnny Isaakson of the Foreign Relations Committee demanded that the State Department make available Stevens’ communications with staff before and during the assault to Congress. “We are extremely concerned about conflicting reports over the events leading up to the attacks,” they wrote in a letter to Secretary Clinton.

Perhaps the party’s most audacious move came Tuesday when eight Republican chairmen in the House of Representatives sent a scathing letter (PDF) to President Barack Obama suggesting that his administration misled the American people about the attack.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has since revised its assessment of the Benghazi attack, describing it as a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”

The intelligence community is obviously not happy that the investigation has been politicized to such an extent. Issuing a release to the public before the investigation is even completed is an indication that American intelligence professionals would rather the political bickering stop.

Regardless of the partisanship involved, Republicans in Congress are right to ask the administration for a detailed briefing on who the perpetrators were, how the attacks unfolded, whether the consulate in Benghazi was prepared adequately and how the United States is prepared to respond. The administration has not been clear or consistent in its public statements and its attempt to investigate the crime has been hampered and delayed by Libya’s fragile security environment.

The president still has high approval ratings from Americans on fighting terrorism but those ratings could very well go down if he does not provide a candid, fact oriented and informational briefing to both Congress and the American people.

He will have a chance to do that next week, when he debates his Republican challenger Mitt Romney in front of a nationally televised audience.