Pre-Factchecking Tonight’s Benghazi Talk

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A burnt car in front of U.S. consulate, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

The Obama administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, seems to have eclipsed Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or Syria as the most talked-about foreign policy issue of the campaign season. At tonight’s debate, Mitt Romney is likely to criticize the President over Benghazi yet again. But are his criticisms true? And if they are, is he blowing this out of proportion?

Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum provides information you need to play the role of Candy Crowley for folks gathered in your living room (and your followers on Twitter).

Why was President Obama initially unwilling to call it an act of terror?

He wasn’t. The day after the attack, on September 12, he gave a Rose Garden speech in which he said, in reference to the assault, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” At campaign stops that day and the next, he again referred to the Benghazi assault as “an act of terror.” A McClatchy report sums up the evidence: “In the first 48 hours after the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya, senior Obama administration officials strongly alluded to a terrorist assault and repeatedly declined to link it to an anti-Muslim video that drew protests elsewhere in the region, transcripts of briefings show.”

A day after the attacks, the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington that there were eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants.Why didn’t Obama administration officials say so?

They did. Hillary Clinton, for one, referred to it as an attack “by a small and savage group.”

Okay, but that McClatchy report quoted above also says that a few days after the attacks administration officials started putting more emphasis on the “Innocence of Muslims” video. Why? It had nothing to do with the Benghazi attacks.

That’s not what locals said. As David Kirkpatrick reports: “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 the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video….The fighters said at the time that they were moved to act because of the video, which had first gained attention across the region after a protest in Egypt that day.” Read more on Mother Jones »

The NYT’s Andrew Rosenthal sums up the “worst-case narrative,” and it’s still not that damning of the administration:

“Security in Benghazi was lacking. The State Department denied requests for greater security. Afterwards, Obama administration officials spent too much time talking about the anti-Muslim video and were slow to indicate that terrorists had planned the attack.”

So why all the fuss? Rosenthal writes that the Romney campaign is playing up Benghazi because “they think it distracts people from the fact that, as the vice president likes to say, General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead…. The Romney campaign is spending so much time on Benghazi only because Mr. Obama’s foreign policy record is strong.”

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