Barack Obama insisted in the presidential debate on Tuesday night that he had called the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” in his Rose Garden address the next day. Fact-checkers called shenanigans on that claim, but McClatchy notes that Obama did call it an “act of terror” the next day at campaign stops in Colorado and Nevada on September 13th. On the same day, the State Department refused to link the Benghazi attack to the YouTube video that media outlets like the New York Times and AFP had. Hillary Clinton called it a terrorist attack that evening.
However, the next day, things began to change, as McClatchy’s Hannah Allam and Jonathan S. Landay report in their in-depth look at how the narrative shifted toward the YouTube video instead of an al-Qaeda attack:
With images of besieged U.S. missions in the Middle East still leading the evening news, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney became the first official to back away from the earlier declaration that the Benghazi assault was a “complex attack” by extremists. Instead, Carney told reporters, authorities “have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack.” He added that there was no reason to think that the Benghazi attack wasn’t related to the video, given that the clip had sparked protests in many Muslim cities.
“The unrest that we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that Muslims, many Muslims, find offensive,” Carney said.
When pressed by reporters who pointed out evidence that the violence in Benghazi was preplanned, Carney said that “news reports” had speculated about the motive. He noted again that “the unrest around the region has been in response to this video.”
Carney then launched into remarks that read like talking points in defense of the U.S. decision to intervene in last year’s uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi: that post-Gadhafi Libya, he said, is “one of the more pro-American countries in the region,” that it’s led by a new government “that has just come out of a revolution,” and that the lack of security capabilities there “is not necessarily reflective of anything except for the remarkable transformation that’s been going on in the region.”
By that Sunday, Sept. 16, the evolution of the narrative was complete when Rice, the U.N. ambassador, showed up on all five major morning talk shows to make the most direct public connection yet between the Benghazi assault and the incendiary video.
While she couched her remarks in caveats – “based on the information we have at present,” for example – Rice clearly intended to make the link before a large American audience.
Why did the story change? State had watched the attack unfold in real time at Foggy Bottom through its security video system, a fact that got revealed at the House Oversight Committee hearings. That’s why State insisted that they had never considered this a “spontaneous demonstration” that “spun out of control,” as Rice insisted on five Sunday talk shows and as Carney tried to claim two days earlier. Similarly, the intel community has leaked on more than one occasion that while the data they had was conflicting, they didn’t conclude it was a demonstration that got out of hand — and several days later, that should have been even more clear.
Allam and Landy hit the nail on the head in their connection of this to Obama’s intervention to decapitate the Qaddafi regime. The rise of radical Islamist terrorist groups in eastern Libya, including al-Qaeda, comes as a direct result of that intervention. The central government in Tripoli has no control now over the Benghazi region. Furthermore, everyone knew before the intervention that AQ and other radicals operated in the eastern part of the country, and a regime decapitation would set those elements free.
The cover story was designed to mislead the American public so that they would not connect those dots. That intervention in Libya, coming with no effort at all to control the outcome on the ground, has made us much less safe, especially in that part of the world.
By the way, as a measure of how little control Tripoli now has over AQ’s new stomping grounds in the east, the New York Times reports that the prime “suspect” in the Benghazi terrorist attack doesn’t even plan to go into hiding. In fact, he’s doing media sessions:
Witnesses and the authorities have called Ahmed Abu Khattala one of the ringleaders of the Sept. 11 attack on the American diplomatic mission here. But just days after President Obama reasserted his vow to bring those responsible to justice, Mr. Abu Khattala spent two leisurely hours on Thursday evening at a crowded luxury hotel, sipping a strawberry frappe on a patio and scoffing at the threats coming from the American and Libyan governments.
Libya’s fledgling national army is a “national chicken,” Mr. Abu Khattala said, using an Arabic rhyme. Asked who should take responsibility for apprehending the mission’s attackers, he smirked at the idea that the weak Libyan government could possibly do it. And he accused the leaders of the United States of “playing with the emotions of the American people” and “using the consulate attack just to gather votes for their elections.”
Mr. Abu Khattala’s defiance — no authority has even questioned him about the attack, he said, and he has no plans to go into hiding — offered insight into the shadowy landscape of the self-formed militias that have come to constitute the only source of social order in Libya since the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Mr. Abu Khattala and that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West and nursed ambitions to extend it over Libya. But also troubling to the United States is the evident tolerance shown by other militias allied with the government, which have so far declined to take any action against suspects in the Benghazi attack.