Electoral-season imperatives won’t be able to wrench a definitive answer, though, about how and why Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others died.
Additional details emerge with each subsequent news report on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. They don’t all point to the same conclusions, though, or answer the most important question: What could have been done to better protect the Americans?
It seems like a foregone conclusion that someone in the U.S. government miscalculated or miscommunicated. The president ultimately bears responsibility for the safety of American government employees stationed oversees. As president, Obama eventually will have to explain the tragedy.
But that does not mean that conservatives, like Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn, will get their way when they demand an answer right now, before Tuesday’s election.
Obama said in an interview with a Denver television reporter last week that his biggest concern is finding the killers.
“We want to make sure we get it right,” Obama said, “particularly because I have made a commitment to the families impacted as well as to the American people: We’re going to bring those folks to justice.”
Republicans have claimed that amounts to stalling, but Obama got important backing last week from a somewhat unexpected corner. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that because of the “fog of war,” assessing the Benghazi attack will not be quick or easy, adding, “It takes a little while to know precisely what has happened.”
So the woman who ran President George W. Bush’s State Department says, flatly, that this isn’t as much of a no-brainer as the attack dogs in her party suggest. “Safety precautions” need to be balanced, she said, with the notion that “you can’t simply keep your diplomats in a bunker.”
News outlets that have looked at the Benghazi, meanwhile, have offered disparate glimpses or have offered pieces of the puzzle. The Reuters news agency reported a week ago that, within two hours after the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission, the White House had received notice that an Islamic militant group, Ansar al Sharia, had claimed credit.
That prompted the question of why some in the administration said, days after the attack, that it appeared to be a mob action, in retaliation for a U.S.-made video that belittled Islam and the prophet Muhammad.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in turn, responded with a “not so fast.” She said the emails were just one of many pieces of information flowing to Washington from the scene of the killings. An overall assessment should not “cherry-pick” facts, she said, to draw an inaccurate conclusion.
A Los Angeles Times story last week, including interviews with witnesses, found that neither the administration’s nor the opposition’s explanations captured the assault precisely. Although there were some “organized elements,” a mob also set on the American compound, witnesses told the newspaper.
Although the Obama administration had backed off of the video retaliation theory, some of those who spoke to The Times as the scene repeated that explanation. Witnesses told a reporter that the attack was opportunistic and did not appear heavily planned. One man told The Times that those assaulting the U.S. compound “told me that the Americans were abusing our prophet.”
The New York Times, in a story Tuesday, found no “smoking gun,” such as a direct threat to the American facility that administration officials ignored. But the newspaper also detailed how the State Department did not markedly increase security in Benghazi even after June attacks on the Red Cross and a British envoy’s motorcade.
Why did officials in Washington fail to step up precautions even as the situation in Benghazi progressively went downhill? The question will not go away until there are clearer answers.
As a purely political matter, the Benghazi furor has thus far animated the GOP base. Activists insist it proves Obama’s ineptitude. They blame the mainstream media for not flogging the administration with the issue daily. (Those expected barbs at the press continue, despite the fact that it is the mainstream press, notably Reuters, that has done the most to bring difficult new details to the fore.)
One notable figure has done little to try to press “Benghazi-gate.” That’s Mitt Romney. The Republican presidential nominee didn’t go after Obama on the topic of Libyan security last week during the lone debate on foreign policy.
He has has not made the issue a regular hit in his stump speech. He has not offered ads arguing that it was Obama who left the four Americans vulnerable. Romney seems content to let the issue play out in its own time.
The Obama administration has some explaining to do. With four Americans dead overseas, their fellow citizens rightly want to know why they couldn’t have been protected. But the answers will not fit neatly, or in time, to make 30-second campaign ads. And there may be new revelations but definitive answers can’t be expected before election day.