WASHINGTON, Oct 14, 2012 (AFP) -
WASHINGTON, Oct 14, 2012 (AFP) –
Top Democrats accused Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney on Sunday of “cravenly” politicizing the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi to further his presidential ambitions.
The fallout from the attack has developed into a toxic political issue as Romney and Democratic President Barack Obama wage an all-out battle in a tight race 23 days out from the November 6 election.
Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US diplomatic staff were killed when militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades launched an assault on the compound in the eastern Libyan city on September 11.
Legitimate questions about inadequate security, the Obama administration’s muddled response, the future of the Arab Spring, even Al-Qaeda’s rise in northern Africa, have become conflated with bitter partisan politicking in a growing pre-election row.
Vice President Joe Biden muddied the waters in a debate with Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan on Thursday night when he replied “we weren’t told” when asked about unheeded requests for greater security prior to the attack.
Romney railed at Biden the following day for “doubling down on denial,” accusing him of contradicting sworn testimony from US officials who said the State Department had refused requests prior to the Benghazi assault.
The White House later clarified that Biden was speaking only for himself and the president, not the administration, explaining that routine security requests for diplomatic missions don’t go that high up the command chain.
Obama aides took to the Sunday television news talkshows to accuse Romney of playing politics with tragedy, against the explicit wishes of Stevens’s father.
They reminded viewers that Romney had been roundly condemned, even by some Republicans, for criticizing the Obama administration for “sympathizing” with extremists even as the events in Benghazi were still unfolding.
“We don’t need shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy, and when Mitt Romney first responded to what was going on in Libya, his own party called him out for insensitivity,” senior Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” fellow top strategist David Axelrod agreed that “from the beginning of the issue, before any facts were known, he was cravenly trying to exploit it.”
Regardless of their protestations, the administration’s evolving narrative on Benghazi has opened it up to sinister accusations.
Five days after the attack, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said preliminary information indicated it had sprung from a spontaneous “copycat” protest against the anti-Muslim video that had inspired similar demonstrations earlier that night in Cairo.
Twelve days after Rice spoke, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed it was a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack” and said incorrect intelligence assessments were to blame for the administration’s misleading accounts.
On October 9, the story changed again.
The State Department, briefing journalists on the eve of a congressional grilling, said the streets around the consulate had been calm before the attack, contradicting previous accounts of a protest.
“There wasn’t a soul around the compound. And the coordinated attack lasted for hours with Al-Qaeda-associated militia,” leading Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“My belief is that that was known by the administration within 24 hours. And, quite frankly, Susan Rice, on your show on September 16, the president on the 18th, and the 25th, kept talking about an attack inspired by a video.”
Graham claimed the Obama administration hid the truth because it didn’t want its wider narrative about a diminished Al-Qaeda to be shown as so transparently false.
“They never believed the media would investigate,” he said. “I think they have been misleading us, but it finally caught up with them.”
Three separate probes are now investigating what happened in Benghazi.
An FBI probe is looking into the deaths of the four Americans, a panel selected by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is examining wider security issues, while congressional hearings are considering both.
“We’re learning stuff each and every day about what happened, that’s what an investigation is supposed to do,” Gibbs told CNN.
Benghazi will loom large over the final, foreign policy-themed debate between Obama and Romney on October 22. Both candidates were hunkered down this weekend preparing for Tuesday’s second debate clash in New York.