Mitt Romney spoke as if he had President Obama cornered.
“The President just said something which is that on the day after the attack, he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror,” the Republican presidential nominee said, turning to face Obama during Tuesday night’s debate. “You said in the Rose Garden, the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration. Is that what you’re saying? Want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the President 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
But Romney did not land the square punch he thought he was throwing. On Sept. 12, the day after four Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the President did say, during remarks delivered in the White House’s Rose Garden, that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” Those words were enough, during the debate, for Obama, with the help of a fact-check from the debate moderator, Candy Crowley, to dodge Romney’s blow.
If you had been listening to Republicans or watching Fox News in recent weeks, you knew that what Romney said wasn’t simply an off-the-cuff or clumsy error. For weeks now, opponents of the administration have been trying to paint the Benghazi attack not just as a possible security or intelligence failure that resulted in the deaths of Americans abroad, but as a scandal that the Obama administration tried to cover-up. And a key part of the Benghazi cover-up theory is the suggestion that the administration made a political decision to avoid or delay calling the assault on the consulate “terrorism,” and to resist the possibility that the attack was planned. Here’s an example of the tenor of the discussion, from Fox News on Thursday morning:
The administration’s critics have seized, in particular, on comments made by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on Sept. 16, five days after the attack. In appearances on Sunday talk shows that day, Rice said the latest assessment was that the attack was not premeditated, and that it had been related to demonstrations that occurred in Egypt (and subsequently in several other Middle Eastern countries) in response to “Innocence of Muslims,” a crude and offensive anti-Muslim film made in California and uploaded to YouTube this summer. Here’s what she told Chris Wallace on Fox New Sunday:
Well, first of all, Chris, we are obviously investigating this very closely. The FBI has a lead in this investigation. The information, the best information and the best assessment we have today is that in fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video. People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya and that then spun out of control.
But we don’t see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack. Obviously, we will wait for the results of the investigation and we don’t want to jump to conclusions before then. But I do think it’s important for the American people to know our best current assessment.
Earlier this week, Rice was asked by The Washington Post if there had been any attempt to pick and choose among possible explanations of the attack. “Absolutely not,” she said. “It was purely a function of what was provided to us.”
Critics have contrasted Rice’s comments soon after the attack with ones that have come since, such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s remarks at a press conference on Sept. 27.
“I think, on the terrorist attack, I mean, as we determined the details of what took place there, and how that attack took place, that it became clear that there were terrorists who had planned that attack, and that’s when I came to that conclusion,” Panetta said. “As, again, as to who was involved, what specific groups were involved, I think the investigation that is ongoing hopefully will determine that.”
Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Libyans who witnessed the assault said “a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video [“Innocence of Muslims”].” But critics, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have dismissed explanations of the attack that involve the video as “spin.” And while the relationship between Ansar al-Shariah, the militants fingered in the attack, and Al Qaeda is complicated, some have decided that the violence in Benghazi supports their argument that Al Qaeda is “back,” and undercuts the administration’s claims about its success against the terror group. There has also been a fixation, most prominently evidenced by Romney on Tuesday, on when exactly the word “terrorism” left the lips of senior officials.
People with experience in intelligence and national security who spoke with TPM this week downplayed much of the debate. They said they see nothing unusual or nefarious in the official story having evolved over time. In fact, they said, it is all but expected that the first official account of a complex and fast-moving event will turn out to be wrong or incomplete.
“Sorting out what happened — in terms of the source of the attack, who knew what before the attack — is a very difficult, complicated, time-consuming process,” Vicki Divoll, former general counsel of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told TPM. “And it is legitimate for it to take several weeks or even longer before you have the answers you need.”
Jonah Blank, a former staff member with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed out that to this day, there is no settled explanation for the death of the last U.S. ambassador to die in office: Arnold Raphel, the ambassador to Pakistan, who in 1988 was flying with Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, then Pakistan’s president, when their plane went down.
“The plane mysteriously crashed,” Blank said. “To this day, nobody really knows whether this was an assassination or an accident. There is very strong suspicion that it was an assassination, and it is presumed that Zia ul-Haq was the target, and that U.S. Ambassador Raphel was unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. … But even with the benefit of hindsight, and all of the intel that has gone into it, we don’t really know.”
Those who spoke with TPM see no significance, in terms of the scope or shape of the government’s response, in the timing of the President or some other senior official publicly labeling an incident “terrorism.”
“I see no difference in resources,” Blank said. “Anytime a U.S. ambassador is killed, there are no resources that are going to be denied.”
Paul Pillar, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a former intelligence officer, told TPM the debate over the Benghazi attack “has been blown up for the obvious political reasons.”
“I didn’t think it would drag on this long and this hard,” Pillar said. “But I guess in the midst of the last three weeks of a presidential election campaign, I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s a shame.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com