Day by day, the public is learning more about what happened in the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. There is still much confusion. But last week we gleaned two key points from a State Department briefing and a House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing:
—Initial White House statements that the attack was triggered by a demonstration over an anti-Muslim video were wrong. There was no demonstration that night.
—Security forces protecting the U.S. Consulate were quickly overwhelmed by a huge band of armed and well-trained militants that stormed the compound that evening around 9:40 p.m. In the months before the attack, the State Department had scaled back American security staff, despite repeated requests for more U.S. manpower from security officials on the ground in Benghazi. No special security measures were in place on the anniversary of 9/11.
We understand how Obama administration officials could, in the confusion and chaos surrounding the attack, get key details wrong. What we can’t understand is why, five days later, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, speaking for the administration, was still expressing complete confidence that this had been the result of a demonstration gone awry. Her televised assurances, rich with certitude, conveyed what at essence was a political message: A top diplomat died not because the administration wrongly downplayed threats from al-Qaida, but because an Internet video had provoked a mob of protesters.
“There’s no question, as we’ve seen in the past with things like ‘The Satanic Verses,’ with the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, there have been such things that have sparked outrage and anger, and this has been the proximate cause of what we’ve seen,” Rice said on NBC’s “Face the Nation.”
Rice has since defended her inaccuracies by saying her talking points came from U.S. intelligence.
But last Tuesday, State Department officials told reporters that they had never concluded the attack was a protest gone awry. The State Department, in other words, has been distancing itself from the White House — which also initially blamed a video-inspired protest — from the beginning.
Before she put her credibility, and the administration’s, on the line, Rice should have talked with Tripoli security team commander Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard. He testified Wednesday that the attacks were “instantly recognizable” as terrorism, not as a protest over insults to Islam. The State Department’s regional security officer, Eric Nordstrom, also testified Wednesday what his cables from Libya had asserted before Sept. 11: State was withdrawing U.S. security too quickly from Libya and replacing it with untested Libyan guards.
Vice President Joe Biden contributed to the credibility gap when he said at Thursday’s debate, “We weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security again.”
That flew in the face of testimony at the congressional hearing, and the White House on Friday tried to clarify — it was Biden and Obama who didn’t know about the security requests.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are right to question whether the Obama administration presided over a security lapse or intelligence failure. Democrats, recall that you raised similar questions a decade ago about whether the administration of President George W. Bush missed warning signs before al-Qaida launched the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Republicans and Democrats negotiated a cut in the State Department’s worldwide security protection program. Would more security have protected the American personnel? When is it safe to rely on local security?
This inquiry will inevitably be wrapped in politics, through and beyond Nov. 6. But it’s an inquiry about protecting every American diplomat around the world. Anything that delays a reckoning for the Benghazi debacle puts American diplomatic missions around the globe at risk.