Successive generations of White House staffs and newspaper editors relearn the same hard lesson: Don't get ahead of the facts.
The initial White House reaction to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which cost the lives of our ambassador and three others, was that it was a spontaneous response to an amateurish video made in the United States that purportedly ridiculed Islam.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, amplified that explanation five days later in a round of talk shows. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the White House knew within 24 hours that it was an orchestrated attack by a terrorist militia, one possibly affiliated with al-Qaida.
If it was a deliberate misrepresentation, as Graham charges, it was a dumb idea — not that dumb ideas are unknown in Washington — because the details were bound to leak out over time.
The White House may have been afraid of losing control of what is now called in Washington-speak "the narrative" and, with the FBI unable to get to the ruined consulate for three weeks, unwilling to wait for all the facts to begin emerging.
Unfortunately for the truth and possibility of preventing a recurrence, this controversy comes at a time when politics colors everything.
To put the worst possible face on it, the GOP may have been trying to take down Rice, a rising star in the Obama administration and a rumored successor to Hillary Clinton, and to tarnish an Obama success, the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Republicans derided the plan until the day Gadhafi was finally killed.
Republicans blamed the White House for ignoring clear warnings of an imminent attack; the White House responded that the Republicans had cut $300 million in diplomatic security funding.5 comments on this story
None of this sparring is at all helpful. It is the responsibility of the host country to protect foreign diplomats and embassies, but that's difficult in the extreme in countries that have no governments or, in the case of Libya, not much of one.
As a practical matter, the U.S. cannot retreat into fortress-like embassies; that defeats the whole purpose of having wingtips on the ground, so to speak — the attaches, the specialists and, yes, the spooks who are eyes and ears in foreign countries.
Unfortunately, a certain amount of risk comes with being a foreign service officer in unsettled parts of the world, risks that the diplomats, like their military counterparts, know going in. Those four Americans who died in Benghazi, and especially Ambassador Chris Stevens, were heroes.
The issue may have been quelled by the secretary of state herself. The formidable Hillary Clinton took responsibility for the deaths and noted that it is she, and not the White House, who is responsible for the security of our diplomatic missions.