Over the past few weeks of the presidential campaign we've been hearing a lot–maybe too much–about the September 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
It's been turned into a campaign issue by the Romney team, which has used the incident to charges that the Obama administration is unable to manage foreign affairs and so forth. The intensity of the Republican pushback has made this into a major story. It was the lead issue in the vice presidential debate, and has been a regular subject on the Sunday chat shows, with Republican lawmakers lining up to denounce the White House.
But in covering the Republican outrage, the media have done a pretty dismal job of sorting out the facts–or even explaining why this story is as important as the level of coverage would suggest.
The fact is that much of this debate is empty political posturing about whether Obama called the incident an "act of terror." It came to a head in last night's debate, when CNN moderator Candy Crowley agreed that Obama indeed had referred to it as an act of terror the day after the attack occurred.
Some Republicans continue to argue that they are still correct, because Obama said "terror" and not "terrorism," or that his statement that "no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation" might have been a general observation unconnected to the killing of the ambassador he had called reporters into the rose garden to discuss. And some media factcheckers are taking these semantic games seriously.
To be sure, the White House has sent out mixed signals about what happened in Benghazi. Much of the blame is directed at UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who made the Sunday talk show rounds on September 16, delivering the message that the attack was a demonstration against an anti-Islamic video.
In subsequent days, the line shifted, and the administration seemed more inclined to describe the incident as a terrorist attack and play down the relevance of the video. Why the second version of events should be considered more trustworthy than the first is not at all clear.
Reporter Eli Lake of the Daily Beast charged the administration wasn't being straight about the attackers (9/26/12). "Within 24 hours of the 9/11 anniversary attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, U.S. intelligence agencies had strong indications Al- Qaeda–affiliated operatives were behind the attack," Lake wrote. That piece relied on anonymous intelligence officials, who claimed information about the attackers was available almost immediately.
Lake's piece, asserting that the U.S. had in fact been attacked by Al-Qaeda sympathizing terrorists, dovetailed with what Republican and conservative critics of the White House are saying: The White House did not want to talk about the U.S. being attacked by Al-Qaeda because it complicates their political message about how they have decimated Al-Qaeda.
The White House's muddled explanation is one thing. But what are the facts? The New York Times report from the scene of the attack (9/13/12) stressed that the attackers themselves stated they were retaliating for the anti-Muslim video, which is basically what the White House had been saying:
Fighters involved in the assault, which was spearheaded by a Islamist brigade formed during last year's uprising against Col. Moammar Gadhafi, said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon. Their attack followed by just a few hours the storming of the compound surrounding the United States Embassy in Cairo by an unarmed mob protesting the same video. On Wednesday, new crowds of protesters gathered outside the United States Embassies in Tunis and Cairo.
The Times also reported:
Interviewed at the scene on Tuesday night, many attackers and those who backed them said they were determined to defend their faith from the video's insults. Some recalled an earlier episode when protesters in Benghazi had burned down the Italian consulate after an Italian minister had worn a T-shirt emblazoned with cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
Over a month later (10/16/12), the Times was reiterating what its reporting had revealed at the time:
To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier. And it is an explanation that tracks with their history as a local militant group determined to protect Libya from Western influence.
What about the contention that the attackers were affiliated with Al-Qaeda? The Times notes:
Whether the attackers are labeled "Al-Qaeda cells" or "aligned with Al-Qaeda," as Republicans have suggested, depends on whether that label can be used as a generic term for a broad spectrum of Islamist militants, encompassing groups like Ansar al-Shariah whose goals were primarily local, as well as those who aspire to join a broader jihad against the West.
The Times adds that Ansar al-Shariah
provides social services and guards a hospital. And they openly proselytize for their brand of puritanical Islam and political vision.
They profess no interest in global fights against the West or distant battles aimed at removing American troops from the Arabian Peninsula.
In other words, while the White House account has its obvious problems, the counter-narrative offered by Republicans hardly seems to make more sense. And much of it is just nonsense–as in the debate exchange over whether Obama used the word "terror."
Still, the right's ability to drive a narrative is impressive. Factcheckers of last night's debate point out that Romney was wrong about Obama's statement, but they nonetheless give him credit for being right about something. Here's the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker (10/17/12):
Crowley interjected that Obama did, in fact, call it an act of terror, although it did take days for the administration to concede that the terrorist act was unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad.
broader point is accurate–that it took the administration days to concede that the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an "act of terrorism" that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad.
Kessler, like ABC News' Jonathan Karl (10/16/12) and the Beltway outlet Politico (10/16/12) , is straining to give Romney some credit by stressing that Obama said "terror" but not "terrorism," or maybe he threw in a line about unrelated foreign policy issues when making a statement about the deaths of the embassy staff.
And they have apparently determined, as a matter of fact, that the attack had nothing to do with this vile video. The New York Times' reporting from the scene tells a different story. So does Kessler think the Times reporting is not to be believed? Someone should get a factchecker to explain.