Published September 18, 2012
Fear that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that left four Americans dead could damage President Obama's foreign policy credentials just 50 days before the election may be driving the administration's insistence that the attack was a spontaneous act, analysts said Monday.
The Libyan president said over the weekend the attack was clearly pre-planned and could bear the markings of an Al Qaeda strike. An intelligence source in Libya also told Fox News on Monday there was no significant demonstration at the time. Still, the administration has contended the attack was "spontaneous," a product of protests already under way against an anti-Islam film.
So why the disconnect? The Obama administration claims the investigation is ongoing, and that it is privy to certain information to back up its version of events. But the president has also been trying hard to make a foreign policy case to voters in the race against Mitt Romney. The closing night of the Democratic convention in Charlotte hammered those credentials -- the president's nomination speech even mentioned progress in Libya.
"It would be an inconvenient truth if it turned out Al Qaeda was behind this attack, because the administration has painted Libya as a victory for its foreign policy," said Jim Phillips, senior research fellow on Middle East issues at The Heritage Foundation.
It's unclear exactly why the administration's account of what happened on the ground in Benghazi last Tuesday night conflicts so sharply with what Libyan officials and a few U.S. lawmakers are saying.
Given the rarity of such a strike, there's no obvious political ramification for the administration if the attack turns out to have been planned -- an ambassador hasn't been killed in such an attack in more than three decades. Voters could rally around the flag in the face of another Al Qaeda-tied assault. Or, to the contrary, they might question the administration's Middle East strategy and the measures it took to protect its own diplomatic team.
Brad Blakeman, adviser to former President George W. Bush, said the administration is worried about the latter scenario -- pointing to that concern in accounting for why U.S. officials continue to call this a spontaneous act.
"The administration would have to be in a defensive posture as to what did they know, when did they know it and what if anything did they do to stop it, as opposed to saying it was spontaneous where they're basically saying it was unforeseeable," he said.
In pointing to the anti-Islam film as the spark for all attackers, Blakeman said, "our president has made their excuse his own."
The conflicting stories are leading to political pressure. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said Monday "there continue to be more questions than answers on the attacks" and criticized the State Department for shutting down questions.
"Americans need a leader, not a president ducking responsibility on important questions," she said.
Obama officials, though, are standing by their story. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said repeatedly in Sunday show interviews that the attack "was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo, as a consequence of the video," and that after the protest outside the U.S. consulate gathered steam, "those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons."
A senior Obama administration official told Fox News on Monday that comments by the Libyan president suggesting that the Benghazi attack was planned in advance are not consistent with "the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community," which has been investigating the incident.
"He doesn't have the information we have," the U.S. official said of Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif. "He doesn't have the (data) collection potential that we have."
And at Monday's State Department briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Rice's assessment "does reflect our initial assessment as a government."
Nuland, in declining to comment further, noted there was an ongoing FBI investigation.
Asked whether the administration would call this a terror attack, she said: "I don't think we know enough yet."
But Jeremy Mayer, public policy professor at George Mason University, said he expects the administration to start changing its assessment in the coming days.
"My guess is there will be a recalibration of this Rice statement by tomorrow," he said.
Indeed, U.S. officials on Monday began to acknowledge some discrepancies. Following a Fox News report that an intelligence source in Libya said there was no protest before the attack, U.S. officials did not dispute there was no sizable or significant demonstration at the time of the strike.
Mayer speculated that the reason the administration might be hesitant to label this a terror strike is the political fallout.
"The stakes are high for Obama, because this is just the type of incident to drop his levels of support just enough to put Romney ahead in some battleground states," he said. "This is not a foreign policy election, but it is a close election."
Still, Mayer said there's a risk for Romney in going after Obama too hard. Romney already took flak from the Obama campaign and the media for criticizing a U.S. Embassy in Cairo statement that allegedly sympathized with the protesters. Mayer suggested Romney would be sorry should Obama end up delivering justice to anti-U.S. plotters with a drone strike.
"Obama is going to be able to just smile softly and play that without saying a damn thing," Mayer said.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian pointed to Obama's record taking out a string of Al Qaeda leaders and rejected any attempt to question Obama's foreign policy record over an unfortunate attack in Libya.
"This is just horrible politics 50 days out from a race," he said.