As criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, continues to grow, top Republicans on Sunday ripped the White House and accused the president’s team of putting politics ahead of the safety of American diplomats.
The mounting backlash has thrust Middle East policy and the fight against terrorists back into the spotlight of the presidential campaign with less than a month until Election Day.
The White House and the Obama campaign are “trying to sell a narrative that … al Qaeda has been dismantled — and to admit that our embassy was attacked by al Qaeda operatives undercuts that narrative,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I think they’ve been misleading us, but it finally caught up with them. Either they are misleading the American people or [they’re] incredibly incompetent.”
Despite requests submitted to the State Department, the administration failed to provide additional security for the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed by terrorists more than a month ago. During the vice presidential debate Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said he and President Obama were unaware of those requests.
“We weren’t told they wanted more security. We did not know they wanted more security,” the vice president said during the faceoff with Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin.
The issue has touched off a debate about the meaning of the word “we,” with Mr. Biden, arguing that “we” means he and Mr. Obama personally.
Democratic surrogates reiterated that notion.
The requests for more security “didn’t come to the White House,” Obama adviser David Axelrod said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“What [Mr. Biden] was talking about is what he and the president knew. These matters were being handled at the State Department.”
Republicans aren’t buying that explanation and see it as an example of the White House trying to pass blame to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others in her office.
“‘We’ generally means your administration,” said Romney adviser Ed Gillespie, also speaking on “Fox News Sunday.”
The controversy surrounding the Benghazi attacks has stretched beyond the requests for more security and who may have been warned about them beforehand.
In the days after the attack, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and other top officials took to the airwaves and blamed Mr. Stevens’ death on an anti-Islamic video that sparked protests outside the consulate.
The White House eventually was forced to walk back that explanation, but critics now say presidential aides stuck to that story even after it became clear that the attack was orchestrated and carefully planned for Sept. 11.
“Why did the administration try so hard to create the wrong impression about what happened? … Folks deserve an explanation,” Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” The senator was serving as a campaign surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The motivation, Mr. Graham and others say, comes down to simple politics. The Obama administration is determined to heavily promote its foreign policy successes while concealing any negative news out of fear that it will hurt the president’s re-election chances, critics charge.
“They’re very political when it comes to foreign policy,” said Mr. Graham, a member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. “When something goes bad, they deny, they deceive and they delay. The truth is the foreign policy choices of President Obama is allowing the region to come unraveled. The whole region is about to explode.”
Democrats responded by accusing Mr. Romney and other Republicans of using the death of Mr. Stevens for electoral benefit.
“I think what we need to do is stop playing politics with this issue,” Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We don’t need wingtip cowboys,” he said. “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. He has done nothing but politicize this issue, when what we need to do is find out what happened, and do that as Americans, not as Democrats and Republicans.”