Depending on whom you read, the scandal on Tuesday could be that embassy staff lacked Marine protection, or the State Department cannot control its Twitter feed, or that Mitt Romney reacted to the latter before the former came to light.
Romney tweeted Tuesday night, “It is disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
In doing so, he sparked a media firestorm that overshadowed reaction to the murder of four unprotected State Department officials in Libya, and to the sequence surrounding a tweet from the U.S. Embassy that the Obama administration asserts it had nothing to do with.
The scope of the disaster — and the serious questions surrounding how it evolved — were brought into focus Thursday afternoon in a report by the Independent (UK) of credible information that the U.S. Government was aware of the planned attack 48 hours before it occurred, but no precautions were taken.
"According to senior diplomatic sources," the Independent report read, "the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and "lockdown", under which movement is severely restricted."
Politico reports that the Obama administration has denied the Independent's report. Shawn Turner, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, emailed: "This is absolutely wrong. We are not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent."
However, as John Hinderaker noted at Powerline, the carefully phrased statement is actually not a denial of the Independent's report. It carefully denies in detail something that the Independent never claimed.
Despite these serious questions surrounding the handling of the event, the mainstream media focus throughout Wednesday and Thursday was on the timing of Mitt Romney's response Tuesday night.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Romney continued his critique of the Obama administration and tied it to his larger characterization of the administration as cowering and apologizing abroad.
The Obama camp fired back, accusing Romney of politicizing the disasters, and the media quickly turned on Romney. By Wednesday morning, key Republican congressional leaders declined to comment on the politics, even as Politico continued to frame the story around Romney's comments.
One who attempted to look past the noise about Romney's response was Molly Ball at the Atlantic.
"If the foreign-policy controversy currently engulfing the campaign is just a matter of timing and propriety," Ball wrote, "it's not a particularly revealing contrast between the candidates. The real question is what substantive critique lies behind Romney's criticism, and what it tells us about how he would conduct foreign policy differently."
While Ball focused on Romney's neoconservative posture in reaction to the events, others have focused on U.S. foreign policy blunders before and after the crisis.
Three key questions are raised in this approach: Was the State Department lax about security in two explosive nations still reeling from revolutions? Did staff at the Cairo embassy freelance with their Twitter account, or were they merely reflecting ongoing administration sentiment? And, finally, is there a logical connection between the security issues and the tweets?
Trouble was brewing well before the riots in Egypt and Libya began on Tuesday. The initial focus of the protests, apparently, was on freeing Omar Abdel Rahman, the infamous blind sheik convicted of the first World Trade Center bombing, not protesting the now notorious anti-Islamic film that subsequently became the focal point.
"The protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was announced Aug. 30 by Jamaa Islamiya, a State Department-designated terrorist group, to protest the ongoing imprisonment of its spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar abdel Rahman," USA Today reported.
There some evidence of noise which might have alerted State Department officials that trouble was underway. One indicator lies in an message sent by one of the murder victims hours before the assault. "Smith sent a message to Alex Gianturco, the director of 'Goonswarm,' Smith's online gaming team or 'guild,'" Fox News reported.
“'Assuming we don’t die tonight,'” the message, which was first reported by Wired, read. 'We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.'" Implicit in this message is that the consulate was not guarded by U.S. Marines, and that he feared the local 'guards' were engaged in a plot.
Hours later, Smith was dead, apparently without Marine protection.
"Marines are routinely posted to U.S. diplomatic outposts around the world," wrote Mark Thompson at Time, "but the ‘interim’ facility in Benghazi apparently was defended only by a handful of U.S. security officers and local hires. The Marines have let it be known that the two unidentified U.S. officials who died at Benghazi were not Marines."
"As any Marine will tell you," Thompson said, "if there had been Marines at Benghazi, they’d be among those killed."
Thompson also cites unconfirmed reports that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson forbade the Marines at the Cairo embassy to carry live rounds. Thompson is working to get confirmation or denial on this.
In short, many critics are questioning why U.S. diplomats were unprotected in semi-anarchic states rife with Islamic terrorism. And some wonder if there is a connection between lax security and a strategy of ameliorating violence with tweets.
The infamous tweet from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo condemning anti-Islamic speech in the U.S. is now a blank page, and at the Cairo embassy website page with the statement confirming the tweet is not found.
But according to Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy, the embassy's tweet was first issued before the embassy was stormed. Then for several hours after the attack, the embassy aggressively defended the statement, including on its website, "We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."
It was in this window — after the embassy was stormed, during the defense of the tweet, and before word arrived of the murders in Libya — that Mitt Romney issued his own tweet condemning the Obama administration for cowering.
"In an effort to cool the situation down, it didn't come from me, it didn't come from Secretary Clinton. It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger," Obama said. "And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they're in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office," Obama said in an interview for 60 Minutes.
But while the State Department distanced itself from the Cairo tweet, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton still condemned the anti-Islamic whose film served as the pretext for violence.
In a statement, Clinton said, "Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, a noted First Amendment scholar, called out Clinton for declaring an official U.S. position "deploring" the offensive exercise of free speech.
Volokh's position essentially parallels Romney's, only Volokh focuses on the rejection of the First Amendment at home, rather than the signal of weakness abroad.
"It’s not just that the government doesn’t endorse the speech," Volokh wrote, "not just that it deplores a limited and narrow category of blasphemous acts (e.g., burning a Koran, treading on a crucifix, and the like), but rather that it deplores any attempt to denigrate religious beliefs. Religious beliefs, which are routinely used by billions as a guide to private action and a guide to lawmaking, are supposed to be somehow immune from the denigration that is a commonplace and necessary part of debate about ideological beliefs generally."
Not everyone agrees with Volokh.
Gail Collins at the New York Times repeated the controversial tweet and asked: "Does that seem all that bad to you, people? It was definitely a film whose only point was to offend people of the Islamic faith. I would also call whoever made it not well-guided."
And Mike Barnicle at MSNBC believes that Christian minister Randall Terry should be prosecuted for inciting riots abroad.
"Given this supposed minister’s role in last year’s riots in Afghanistan, where people died, and given his apparent or his alleged role in this film," Barnicle said Tuesday afternoon, "where, not yet nailed down, but at least one American, perhaps the American ambassador is dead, it might be time for the Department of Justice to start viewing his role as an accessory before or after the fact."