Questions and answers about what the Obama administration said and knew about the attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya, which has been made into a campaign issue by the Romney campaign.
The dispute over how the Obama administration has characterized the lethal attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, last month boiled over once again in the debate Tuesday night between President Obama and Mitt Romney. But questions about what happened in the attack, and disputes over who said what about it, have left many people confused. Here are some of the facts as they are now known:
Question: When did Obama first talk about the attack on Sept. 11 in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as terrorism?
Answer: Obama applied the “terror” label to the attack in his first public statement on the events in Benghazi, delivered in the Rose Garden at the White House at 10:43 a.m. on Sept. 12, although the reference was indirect. “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for,” he said. “Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”
Q: Was that the only time Obama used the “terror” label?
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A: No. The next day, Sept. 13, in a campaign appearance in Las Vegas, he used similar language. “And we want to send a message all around the world — anybody who would do us harm: No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America,” he said.
Q: If the president referred to the attack as an “act of terror” twice in those two days, why has there been such a controversy over what Republicans call the administration’s deep reluctance to label the attack terrorism?
A: The “act of terror” references attracted relatively little notice at the time, and later they appeared to have been forgotten even by some administration officials. In the vice-presidential debate, for instance, Rep. Paul Ryan declared, “It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack.” Vice President Joe Biden did not directly contradict the charge. What attracted more attention was a series of statements by administration officials, notably Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, that appeared to link the Benghazi attack to a protest against a crude anti-Islam video made in the United States that was circulating on the Web.
Q: What exactly did the administration officials say that prompted the Republican response?
A: Several officials emphasized that the attack appeared to be spontaneous, not planned, and linked it to the protests over the video that had taken place in Cairo and other cities. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said Sept. 14 about the Benghazi attack, “We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack.” On Sept. 16, Rice said, “What this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what happened, transpired in Cairo,” where protesters angered by the video stormed the grounds of the U.S. Embassy. Hedging her remarks by saying that her information was preliminary, Rice also said, “We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people, came to the embassy to — or to the consulate, rather — to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo.” That initial protest, she said, “seems to have been hijacked” by “extremists who came with heavier weapons.”
Q: When did administration officials begin consistently to use the “terrorism” label?
A: On Sept. 19, Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said about the killings in Benghazi during a Senate hearing, “Yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy.” The next day, asked about Olsen’s testimony, Carney declared, “It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”
Q: What were U.S. intelligence agencies saying about the attack?
A: Administration officials later explained their statements by saying they had repeated preliminary information they had learned from intelligence briefings. The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., lent some support to the administration’s claims by approving the release of an unusual public statement Sept. 28 about the evolving conclusions of the intelligence agencies. His spokesman, Shawn Turner, said intelligence analysts who at first believed that the attacks were part of a spontaneous protest revised their initial assessments “to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
Q: What do eyewitnesses say about the events in Benghazi? Were they related to the video, or is that a red herring? And was the assault planned for the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, or was it spontaneous?
A: According to reporting by David D. Kirkpatrick and Suliman Ali Zway of The New York Times, eyewitnesses have said there was no peaceful demonstration against the video outside the compound before the attack, although a crowd of Benghazi residents soon gathered, and some later looted the compound. But the attackers, recognized as members of a local militant group called Ansar al-Sharia, did tell bystanders they were attacking the compound because they were angry about the video. They did not mention the Sept. 11 anniversary. Intelligence officials think planning for the attack probably began only a few hours before it took place.
Q: Is it fair to link the Benghazi attack to al-Qaida?
A: Only indirectly. Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of al-Qaida, had called on Libyans to avenge the killing of a Libyan-born al-Qaida leader, and U.S. intelligence officials have said they intercepted boastful phone calls after the assault from the attackers to members of the al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Q: Why has this event become such a flash point in the campaign?
A: As the centerpiece of his national-security record, Obama has highlighted his administration’s aggressive efforts against militants in Pakistan and Yemen, as well as the successful raid to kill Osama bin Laden. Some of his top aides have suggested that al-Qaida has been decimated by the U.S. strikes. Republicans have seized on the Benghazi attack — which resulted in the first killing of a U.S. ambassador in decades — to counter this Democratic line, suggesting that the administration has exaggerated its success against al-Qaida and has pursued policies that have left the Middle East in chaos.