WASHINGTON: The row over the assault on the US mission in Libya has narrowed to focus on how and why the CIA’s determination that it was a terror attack was left out of a public “talking points” memo.
Armed militants stormed the US mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi on September 11 in a coordinated assault at two different locations over several hours that left US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.
President Barack Obama alluded to the attack being an “act of terror” almost immediately, but senior administration officials then started suggesting it resulted spontaneously from protests at an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube.
In hearings in Congress on Friday, former CIA chief David Petraeus, in his first public outing since his humbling resignation due to an extramarital affair with his biographer, said he knew from the start it was terrorism.
Rather than putting the matter to rest, his remarks — which sounded very different depending on whether you believed the Republican or Democratic interpretations after the closed-door hearings — just raised more questions.
Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, vowed on Sunday to investigate why Petraeus’ conclusion was not reflected in CIA “talking points” used by the administration to inform the public days later.
The stakes of the row are high as Obama mulls picking US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice as his next secretary of state despite the fact that Republicans accuse her of misleading the public over Benghazi.
If he does and Republicans dig their heels in during the Senate confirmation process, a bitter partisan fight looms at the start of Obama’s second term just when he is looking to bridge the Washington divide on budget talks and possible immigration reforms.
Rice, seen as the up-and-coming star of US diplomacy prior to Benghazi, fell into the Republican crosshairs when she took to the Sunday morning talk shows five days after the attack at the behest of the White House.
She said initial intelligence indicated that the assault arose “spontaneously” out of “copycat” protests like the ones in Cairo, and that the attack did not appear to be pre-planned or premeditated.