In the immediate aftermath of an attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the Obama administration was quick to blame an obscure anti-Muslim video on YouTube. There is ample evidence that intelligence agents knew early on this story wasn't true, and yet the administration stuck to it for at least a week and the film's maker was arrested on allegations he violated parole for an earlier check-kiting conviction in connection with making the film and publishing it on the Internet.
State Department officials now say the attack was a planned terrorist assault. However, they steadfastly deny claims that the consulate was not properly defended on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist bombings in the U.S. This despite testimony from the head of an elite security force in Libya that he expected such an attack as the U.S. was the "last flag flying" in Benghazi, and from a regional security official at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, who testified he asked Washington for more security but was denied.
These are the facts as they have unfolded since the attack, and particularly as unveiled at a congressional hearing this week. All of which raise the question, what on earth is going on within the administration?
Was the president so worried about his re-election that he wanted to make the attack look like the spontaneous response to a video, and not a failure of intelligence and planning? Perhaps the administration was legitimately confused in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but why did it hold to the anti-Muslim film story as the evidence quickly became more clear?
Writing in TechPresident, Lisa Goldman reported that Middle East expert Michael W. Hanna said radical Salafi groups had been planning for weeks to demonstrate at U.S. embassies and consulates on Sept. 11. These plans were hardly secret. As early as the end of August, a website based in the U.S. posted a call to demonstrate on Sept. 11. The motivating factor for the protests was stated as the continued imprisonment of Omar Abdel Rahman for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Later, the brother of an al-Qaida leader used Twitter to call for demonstrations. Only on Sept. 9 did radicals seize on the anti-Muslim video as a rallying cry. The movie was posted on YouTube in early July, Goldman wrote.
It is a shame, but inevitable, that such a tragic attack has become fodder for political opportunism. Republicans are questioning the administration's readiness and its honesty in the aftermath of the attacks, and Democrats in Congress are trying to place blame on Republicans for cutting the State Department's security budget. Virtually any controversy in October can affect a November election.
But this is a deadly serious matter. Four Americans died in the attack, and U.S. interests are at risk in a country it recently helped liberate. Americans should demand careful scrutiny of what happened, who might have been negligent and why the White House for days seemed to be at odds with the evidence.