Republicans are looking to blame President Obama as they raise questions about whether the administration ignored requests for more security in Libya and why it failed to foresee the deadly attack in Benghazi.
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s handling of the Libya attack has opened a new front in the presidential campaign, as Republicans seize on it to question President Obama’s performance as commander in chief.
Questions about whether the administration ignored requests for beefed-up security in Libya, and why a sizable CIA presence in Benghazi failed to foresee an attack by dozens of armed extremists, have become a distraction — if not a problem — for the president’s campaign.
With less than four weeks until Election Day, and following a contentious House hearing this week on security in Libya, the first question to Joe Biden in Thursday’s vice-presidential debate was: “Wasn’t this a massive intelligence failure?”
The dispute escalated after the vice president responded that “we weren’t told” Americans on the ground wanted security bolstered, despite testimony in the House that requests were made to — and turned down by — the State Department.
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The Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Mitt Romney’s campaign Friday accused Biden of trying “to mislead the American public.”
“There were more questions that came out last night because the vice president directly contradicted the sworn testimony of State Department officials,” Romney said at a rally in Richmond, Va., on Friday. “He’s doubling down on denial. And we need to understand exactly what happened, as opposed to just having people brush this aside.”
A State Department regional security officer and a Utah National Guard officer in charge of security in Libya both testified Wednesday before a House committee that they sought more security officers but were rebuffed.
Asked about that Thursday night during his debate with Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, Biden said: “We weren’t told they wanted more security again. We did not know they wanted more security again.”
Senior administration officials Friday said Biden’s answer was accurate because the request did not filter its way up to his level.
“The vice president was speaking about himself, the president and the White House,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “He was not referring to the administration.”
Moreover, though the embassy in Tripoli requested an extension of duty for 13 U.S. military or diplomatic security personnel, it did not request additional guards for the mission in Benghazi, 400 miles away. State Department officials testified that extending the teams’ tour would not have changed the bloody outcome.
Carney accused Republicans of exploiting a tragedy for political gain and engaging in hypocrisy because they voted against some money proposed for diplomatic security, singling out Ryan.
The administration at first attributed the deaths of Stevens and the others to an opportunistic attack taking advantage of protests against an anti-Islam film. Officials eventually termed the assault a terrorist attack tied to al-Qaida elements.
“First they blame a YouTube video and a nonexistent riot,” Ryan told supporters in Lancaster, Ohio. “Then when the country’s getting upset about it, they blame Romney and Ryan for getting people upset about it.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Friday that the administration “to this day” did not yet have a “complete picture” of what happened in Benghazi.
“We do not have all the answers,” she said. “No one in this administration has ever claimed otherwise.”
Obama aides say they don’t believe many people will cast votes based on the White House’s response to events in Libya.
Still, Obama has used his foreign-policy record — largely his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden — as a potent reminder of the promises he made and kept.
How much the issue has influenced voters remains uncertain.
Approval of Obama’s handling of foreign policy fell from 54 percent in August to 49 percent last month after the Benghazi attack, while disapproval rose from 40 to 46 percent, according to a survey by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal at the end of September.
At the same time, Republicans are focusing attention on national security as they worry that the economy may not offer as much traction as they once thought. Polls have shown some increasing optimism about the economy.
Though Romney ratcheted up his criticism of the president over Benghazi all week, he has intentionally stayed one or two steps behind fiercer Republican critics in Congress, his advisers said.
The effort will continue at the second presidential debate Tuesday; for the first time foreign policy will be a topic.