Sorting out the truth on the attack in Libya
By Jon Greenberg
Published on Thursday, October 18th, 2012 at 4:07 p.m.
If you wanted clarity about the attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, you haven't gotten it from the presidential and vice presidential debates. What you've gotten, for the most part, is quarreling and finger-pointing.
Indeed, when moderator Candy Crowley stepped in during Tuesday's debate and made use of a single clear fact, the audience applauded.
The situation at the consulate unravelled rapidly on the night of Sept. 11. Dozens of men attacked with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. They breached the walls and set fire to the buildings. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Lingering questions about the attack are how much President Barack Obama’s administration can be blamed and whether it misled people about what happened in the days immediately after the attack.
PolitiFact has examined two claims about Benghazi that address those points. The fact-checks provide some clarity about the dueling statements of the presidential campaigns.
Romney: Says Obama waited two weeks to call the attack in Libya "terror"
In Tuesday’s debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney said "it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror." Many other Republicans have made similar charges, saying administration officials were at best confused, and at worst, intentionally misleading in their responses.
Romney seemed surprised during the debate when Obama said, "The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened -- that this was an act of terror -- and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime."
When Romney objected, Crowley confirmed that Obama had referred to the Benghazi attack as terror. That was the moment of applause -- a note of approval for a moderator's fact-check while the debate was in progress.
We went to the White House transcript, and the president is correct. On Sept. 12, the day after the attack, in the Rose Garden, Obama condemned the attack.
"Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe," Obama said. "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
Some have parsed Obama's remarks and argued he didn't say the Benghazi attack was specifically an act of terror. However, given the overall context of his comments, it seems a fair conclusion that he considered "acts of terror" to apply to the assault in Benghazi.
The president called the attack "an act of terror" over the next two days, in speeches in Colorado and Nevada.
However, we found some truth to Romney's claim because of what Obama and other members of his administration said in the aftermath of the assault.
The White House spokesman and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations suggested that the attack seemed to have taken advantage of popular outrage over an American-made video that disparaged Islam. The repeated references to demonstrations fueled criticism that the administration wanted to mislead the public.
On Sept. 13, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "The protests we're seeing around the region are in reaction to this movie. They are not directly in reaction to any policy of the United States or the government of the United States or the people of the United States."
On Sept. 16, five days after the attack, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said, "We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned."
A leaked CIA memo sent to lawmakers around Sept. 15 linked the attack to demonstrations. At the same time, we now know the State Department thought the demonstrations played no role at all. By Sept. 20, Obama and his spokesman were out of sync.
On that day, Carney told reporters, "It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Our embassy was attacked violently, and the result was four deaths of American officials."
Meanwhile, at a town hall event in Florida, Obama was asked ""We have reports that the White House said today that the attacks in Libya were a terrorist attack. Do you have information indicating that it was Iran, or al Qaeda was behind organizing the protests?"
Here is Obama’s reply:
"Well, we’re still doing an investigation, and there are going to be different circumstances in different countries. And so I don’t want to speak to something until we have all the information. What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests."
By mentioning the video, Obama drew attention away from the possibility that the attack had been a planned assault. This lies at the heart of the dispute over what Obama and his administration were saying in the days after the attack. The president had the chance to be more complete and direct in Florida, but the administration was continuing to focus on the response to the video.
So while Obama did speak of the attack as terrorism right away, neither he nor his staff consistently presented it that way for more than a week afterward. What we don’t know is whether the shifting descriptions reflected honest confusion over conflicting reports or a desire to deflect criticism for being unprepared. We rate Romney’s statement Half True.
Biden: "We weren't told they wanted more security" for diplomatic facilities in Libya
During the Oct. 11 vice presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz pressed Vice President Joe Biden to explain why administration officials at first described the Libya attack as something that emerged from a protest. Biden said that they were using what the intelligence community told them. Raddatz asked about requests for more security forces.
"Well, we weren't told they wanted more security there," Biden replied.
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan challenged Biden: "There were requests for extra security; those requests were not honored."
There have been a number of news reports that American officials in Libya wanted to keep a 16-man military team in place beyond August but those requests were denied. Republicans charge that the Obama administration underestimated the threat of violence and failed to do all they should have done to protect the consulate in Benghazi.
In a House hearing last week, a State Department employee, Eric Nordstrom, said he told his superiors twice that the embassy mission needed more armed security. Nordstrom was the regional security officer for Libya in the months before the attack. In a July cable, he said he wanted 12 guards plus military trainers.
Charlene Lamb, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, confirmed at the hearing that she opposed keeping the team in Libya.
Beyond putting his assessment on paper, Nordstrom made that request verbally to a State Department officer in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. "His response to that was, 'You're asking for the sun, moon, and the stars,'" Nordstrom said.
State Department officials at the hearing argued that they met other security requests and that the additional personnel would have been of little use since they would have been based in Tripoli. The attack took place in Benghazi, some 400 miles from Tripoli.
In fact, the number of guards at the Benghazi consulate when the attack occurred was at the number Nordstrom said were needed. He wanted five; three were based there permanently and two more traveled with the ambassador.
Also, Nordstrom was seeking more forces for the embassy mission nationally, not just in Benghazi. In addition, the ambassador could have brought more guards with him from Tripoli. They were available but not deployed.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that Biden was answering the debate question in terms of what the White House knew, not the entire administration.
"The vice president was speaking for himself and the president," Vietor said. "In over four hours of testimony the other day, no one suggested that requests for additional security were made to the president or the White House. These are issues that are appropriately handled by security professionals at the State Department."
Even though White House officials may not have gotten the request, the request was made within the State Department, which is part of the Obama administration.
More recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she accepts responsibility for the decisions made within her department and at Tuesday’s debate, the president said the ultimate responsibility falls on his shoulders.
We rate Biden’s statement Mostly False.
See Truth-O-Meter items.
Researchers: Jon Greenberg
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