WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration’s latest verbal bungle over the chain of events leading to the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, rekindled the controversy over the incident on Friday and offered new ammunition to Republican opponents.
In Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden insisted that “we weren’t told they wanted more security” at the ill-fated U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens died.
Biden’s statement, at least on the surface, appeared to contradict congressional testimony less than 48 hours earlier from State Department officials, and offered a fresh opening for Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, who has repeatedly sought to attack the White House over the issue.
It was the latest example of a White House, which has long prided itself on “message discipline,” flubbing its own message on the Libya attacks. President Barack Obama and his aides have struggled to explain why they first described the violence as growing out of protests over an anti-Muslim movie, only later to acknowledge it was an organized attack by militants.
In a written commentary the day before Biden spoke, prominent national security analyst Anthony Cordesman said the administration had “fumbled the situation by going into a state of confused denial” about Libya. The administration should also have made a stronger case for establishing on-the-scene diplomacy in a volatile environment such as post-Gaddafi Libya, he wrote.
Cordesman also said the Republicans had turned the Benghazi events into a “gotcha” contest where the president is somehow blamed for “largely local security decisions.”
The White House was quick to defend Biden on Friday, saying he had been speaking only for himself and Obama - in other words, not for anyone else in the administration who might have heard about the dangers facing Americans in Libya’s relatively lawless second city before Stevens and three other Americans were killed on the night of September 11.
Romney went back on the offensive on Friday, saying Biden had contradicted the sworn testimony of State Department officials. “He’s doubling down on denial,” Romney charged.
Biden’s “we did not know” comment fed into Republican criticism that the administration had been less than truthful about a violent assault on U.S. interests during an election year in which Obama previously seemed to have the upper hand in foreign policy.
“We weren’t told they wanted more security. ... We did not know they wanted more security” in Benghazi, Biden said in the debate with Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Until now, the Republicans had focused much of their fire about Libya on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice.
Rice, speaking from talking points prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies, suggested a few days after the Benghazi events that the violence appeared to have been sparked by protests over the anti-Muslim video.
Bob Corker, a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Friday the administration had to have known right away that the assault on the mission was carried out by militants and was not triggered by a protest.
“Within 24 hours of the incident the administration knew that this was an orchestrated terrorist attack, and they clearly were aware of the specific details, including requests for additional security, that have finally been made public this week,” Corker said in a statement.
“With the vice president continuing this ruse with his comments last night, all Americans should ask what the administration is trying to hide,” he added.
At the congressional hearing on Wednesday, two U.S. security officers described their frustration that their requests for more security resources in Libya were ignored in the weeks and months before the assault on the Benghazi mission.
An official from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security acknowledged at the hearing that she had turned aside pleas for more security.
“I said personally I would not support it,” the official, Charlene Lamb, said when asked about one particular request to extend deployment of a 16-person U.S. military team that left Libya in August, a month before the bloodshed in Benghazi.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Friday that Biden had been “speaking directly for himself and the president” with his comments about diplomatic security, not for the State Department, where Carney said such issues were “appropriately” handled.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also tried to smooth over the controversy, saying the administration was dealing with the best available information as it came in about the events in Benghazi.
“To this day - to this day - we do not have a complete picture. We do not have all the answers. No one in this administration has ever claimed otherwise,” Clinton said at an appearance with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi.
Cordesman, the analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he did not believe Biden misspoke. He said the top echelons of an administration did not know all details of security requests that came in from “lots of crisis countries.”
“This is the vice president of the United States, and you are talking about a security chain coming from one embassy, one consulate structure, in a highly unstable country,” Cordesman, a former intelligence expert at the Pentagon, said in a telephone interview.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Andrew Quinn and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Peter Cooney