WASHINGTON — Sensing a moment of political vulnerability on national security, Republicans pounced Friday on disclosures that President Barack Obama's administration could have suspected early on that militants, not angry protesters, launched the attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya.
Within 24 hours of the deadly attack, the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington that there were eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants, officials told The Associated Press. But for days, the Obama administration blamed it on an out-of-control demonstration over an American-made video ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, led Friday's charge.
"Look around the world, turn on your TV," Ryan said in an interview with WTAQ radio in the election battleground state of Wisconsin. "And what we see in front of us is the absolute unraveling of the Obama administration's foreign policy."
As a security matter, how the Obama administration immediately described the attack has little effect on broader counterterrorism strategies or on the hunt for those responsible for the incident, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. And Republicans have offered no explanation for why the president would want to conceal the nature of the attack.
But the issue has given Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney an opportunity to question Obama on foreign policy and national security, two areas that have received little attention in an election dominated by the U.S. economy. Obama's signature national security accomplishment is the military's killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Ryan was teeing up the issue for Monday's presidential debate on foreign policy.
"I'm excited we're going to have a chance to talk about that on Monday," Ryan said.
Obama, speaking Thursday on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," insisted that information was shared with the American people as it came in. The attack is under investigation, Obama said, and "the picture eventually gets filled in."
"What happens, during the course of a presidency, is that the government is a big operation and any given time something screws up," Obama said. "And you make sure that you find out what's broken and you fix it."
The report from the station chief was written late Wednesday, Sept. 12, and reached intelligence agencies in Washington the next day, intelligence officials said. It is not clear how widely the information from the CIA station chief was circulated.
U.S. intelligence officials have said the information was just one of many widely conflicting accounts, which became clearer by the following week.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN that the administration didn't understand the gravity of the situation in Benghazi and as a result bad decisions were made to promote the video as the root of the violence.
"By continuing to promote the video, by escalating the value and credibility of that video to a presidential level, by buying ads in Pakistan that actually fueled protests all across Pakistan — and so, this is what's so disturbing to me: Were those decisions based on intelligence? I think it's hard to say yes. So why did they do it? That's the question we need to get answered. "
Democrats have spent the past week explaining the administration's handling of the attack. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said a period of uncertainty typically follows attacks.
"In the wake of an attack like this, in the fog of war, there's always going to be confusion," Clinton said. "And I think it is absolutely fair to say that everyone had the same intelligence. Everyone who spoke tried to give the information that they had."
On Tuesday, Obama and Romney argued over when the president first called it a terrorist attack. In his Rose Garden address the morning after the killings, Obama said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
But Republicans said he was speaking generally and didn't specifically call the Benghazi event a terror attack until weeks later. Until then, key members of the administration were blaming an anti-Muslim movie circulating on the Internet as a precipitating event.
This Wednesday, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., put the blame on the director of national intelligence, James Clapper.
"I think what happened was the director of intelligence, who is a very good individual, put out some speaking points on the initial intelligence assessment," Feinstein said in an interview with news channel CBS 5 in California. "I think that was possibly a mistake."
A U.S. intelligence official said that the talking points were written so senior officials could say something preliminary about the attacks but that it wasn't until days later that analysts reconciled contradictory information and decided there probably wasn't a protest around the time of the attack. The official spoke anonymously because the official was not allowed to speak publicly of the still-evolving investigation.
The official said "right now, there isn't any intelligence" that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance, but instead still points to an them launching the assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Congress is asking the administration for documents about the attack, in hopes of building a timeline of what the government knew and when.
Obama has weathered similar criticisms before. After both the failed bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 and the attempted car bombing in Times Square in 2010, the Obama administration initially said there were no indications of wider terrorist plots. The Christmas Day bomber turned out to be linked to al-Qaida and the Times Square bomber was trained by the Pakistani Taliban.
Nevertheless, polls have consistently showed voters trust Obama over Romney to handle terrorism. If Obama was worried that Monday's debate would change that, he showed no signs of it Thursday night.
Speaking at a charity dinner, he offered this preview of the debate: "Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden."
Dozier can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KimberlyDozier
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