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USA: Shifting Reports on Libya Killings May Cost Obama

Saturday 29 September 2012, by siawi3

Published: September 28, 2012


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s shifting accounts of the fatal attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, have left President Obama suddenly exposed on national security and foreign policy, a field where he had enjoyed a seemingly unassailable advantage over Mitt Romney in the presidential race.

After first describing the attack as a spontaneous demonstration run amok, administration officials now describe it as a terrorist act with possible involvement by Al Qaeda. The changing accounts prompted the spokesman for the nation’s top intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., to issue a statement on Friday acknowledging that American intelligence agencies “revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”

The unusual statement was not solicited by the White House, according to Shawn Turner, the spokesman for Mr. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, but it seemed calculated to relieve some of the pressure on the White House for the contradictory accounts given in the two and a half weeks since the attack. It is unlikely to stop questions from the Romney campaign, which senses an opportunity.

“This incident is a hinge event in the campaign because it opens up the opportunity to talk more broadly about Obama’s foreign policy,” said Richard S. Williamson, a former diplomat and an adviser to Mr. Romney.

But the questions are likely to come not just from partisan Republicans. The Benghazi attack calls into question the accuracy of intelligence-gathering and whether vulnerable American personnel overseas are receiving adequate protection. Even allies of the president like Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have petitioned the White House for more information about how the government protects diplomatic installations abroad.

Almost since the smoke cleared in Benghazi, Republicans have accused Mr. Obama’s aides of deliberately playing down the attack. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, condemned the administration’s initial account of the attack as “disgraceful,” saying on CBS that it “shows a fundamental misunderstanding not only of warfare, but of what’s going on in that part of the world.”

The White House maintains that its account changed as intelligence agencies gathered more details about the attack, not from any desire to diminish its gravity. Mr. Obama, his aides point out, labeled the assault an “act of terror” in his first public response, in the Rose Garden, a day after it happened.

“In any situation like this, you know more one week later than you did the day after, and more two weeks later than you did one week after,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Given the demand for information, we feel there is a responsibility to provide the facts as we understand them.”

For the White House, the latest intelligence is helpful in one regard: It indicates that the attack, while carried out in an organized manner, mainly by a local extremist group in eastern Libya, Ansar al-Shariah, was probably not planned months or weeks in advance.

After poring over intercepted electronic communications, informant reports and photographs and video from the scene, American intelligence and counterterrorism officials have concluded that a small number of the local Libyan militia members probably have ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Qaeda affiliate in North Africa. But analysts say they have not found any evidence to indicate that the affiliate ordered or planned the attack.

In his statement, Mr. Turner said that it was unclear who had directed the attack, but that “we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to, Al Qaeda.”

At the same time, further details about the attack could lay bare lapses in security that could damage the administration. CNN has reported, from a diary belonging to J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador killed in the attack, that he harbored worries about his security. Mr. Williamson, who served as special envoy to Sudan under President George W. Bush, said it was unlikely that Mr. Stevens would not have relayed those concerns to the State Department.

Mr. Romney has been cautious in his public comments about the attack since his initial response, which was criticized by Mr. Obama and Republicans for being premature and unseemly in the face of a tragedy. But Mr. Romney has singled out the administration for its conflicting accounts, and has begun questioning whether it heeded warnings of anti-American attacks in the region, timed to the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“There are a wide array of reports about warnings, and were they heeded?” Mr. Romney said to reporters on his plane Friday. “We’ll find out whether that was the case or that was not the case.” Similarly, Mr. Romney said it was not yet certain whether the administration’s changing accounts suggested “that they were trying to paper over or whether it was just confusion given the uncertain intelligence reports.”

Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who worked on Mr. Bush’s national security staff, said there was no evidence that the administration was untruthful in its early accounts. But he said it was possible that the White House chose to emphasize certain elements, like the popular outrage in the Arab world against a video mocking the Prophet Muhammad, over other elements, like a possible link between the assailants and Al Qaeda. Such a narrative, he said, would have done less to draw attention away from the uproar over Mr. Romney’s response.

White House officials dispute that the press secretary, Jay Carney, cited the anti-Muhammad video as the cause of the attack in Benghazi. They also defended statements by the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, in which she characterized the attack as a spontaneous episode related to protests in Cairo. Ms. Rice, they said, based that on an unclassified document summarizing the latest intelligence at that moment.

Political advisers to Mr. Obama said it was too soon to know whether the attack in Libya, or the broader unrest in the Middle East, would affect the campaign. But they said they did not expect the attack to rob the president of his credibility on national security, contending that voters were far more likely to remember the raid on Osama bin Laden.

“If the president says he is going to bring these people to justice,” said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who is an adviser to the Obama campaign, “he has a pretty good track record of following people to the ends of the earth to do that.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, Steven Lee Myers from the United Nations, and Ashley Parker from Bedford, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in print on September 29, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Shifting Reports on Libya Killings May Cost Obama.