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A political firestorm

The deep roots of violent jihadism in eastern Libya have been largely ignored in the political firestorm over the attack that killed Stevens and the other three Americans.

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of initially attributing the attack to spontaneous protests over a U.S.-made anti-Islam video in order to maintain the president’s foreign policy image before Election Day and not undermine his campaign message that al Qaeda had been decimated.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice became the lightning rod for criticism because she trumpeted that line on the Sunday TV talk shows five days after the attack.

At the end of September, the director of national intelligence, in an unprecedented public comment on the intelligence process, noted that initial assessments “continue to evolve” and that the attack in fact was likely organized hurriedly by extremists, including al Qaeda supporters. The statement did not mention the Internet video.

The issue, which sputtered during the election campaign, was reignited last month after Mrs. Rice was mentioned as a possible successor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Several former officials said the years-old and publicly available information exposing Benghazi and Darnah as hotbeds of al Qaeda-linked activity raises more serious national security questions that deserve the attention of Congress.

Intelligence and investigation

“There was certainly more than enough evidence that there were extremist and al Qaeda groups that were operating in eastern Libya,” said Nick Dowling, who served on President Clinton’s National Security Council and now runs the consulting firm IDS International LLC.

“The key question from an investigation standpoint is how was that information shared and fused within the U.S. government and in what form did it filter into the State Department Regional Security Officer’s plan for its posture at the Benghazi consulate,” said Mr. Dowling. “I think that’s a very fair question to ask in considering how we could have done that more effectively.”

Former officials note that, unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S.-backed campaigns resulted in regime change and a new government proved unable to stabilize security, there was no major U.S. military presence in Libya.

Eric Nordstrom, who was in charge of diplomatic security on the ground in Libya, told a pre-election congressional hearing that pleas for additional security in Tripoli and Benghazi were rejected at State Department headquarters.

How much security?

Several former diplomatic and military officials expressed skepticism to The Times that anything short of a large-scale U.S. military presence in Benghazi would have been able to stop the consular compound from being overrun on Sept. 11.

“There’s not much you can do, if 80 or 100 [extremists] attack a small facility with mortars and [rocket-propelled grenades],” said Michael B. Kraft, a former State Department counterterrorism adviser. “In my view, this [attack] would have overwhelmed any reasonable security presence.”

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