The coincidence of these events led to some confused assessments and even more confused rhetoric by the Obama administration, which initially described the Libya attacks as growing out of a protest of the video. President Obama, who has been boasting on the campaign trail that “al-Qaeda is on its heels,” was particularly slow to publicly recognize what happened; asked on Sept. 25 whether a terrorist attack had taken place, he responded that “we are still doing an investigation” — even though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had labeled it terrorism four days earlier.
Republican claims that the administration has engaged in a deliberate coverup of what happened on Sept. 11 are nevertheless overblown. In a House hearing Wednesday, GOP representatives offered no evidence that their favorite target, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, deliberately hid the truth on Sept. 16, when she described the attack in television interviews as the outgrowth of a protest against the video. On the contrary, testimony by Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy, who said Ms. Rice’s account was based on reporting by the intelligence community, was credible.
At the same time, GOP House investigators have helped make clear that the Benghazi attack should have come as no surprise to the U.S. mission — and that it was preceded by terrible decisions about security. Though extremist militants were known to be operating in the Benghazi area, only a tiny force protected the U.S. compound; the State Department denied a request by the regional security officer to extend the term of a 16-member military squad that had been protecting the embassy in Tripoli. An assertion at the hearing by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb that “we had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11” was patently absurd; the White House quickly repudiated it.
In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, Mr. Obama acknowledged that “the information may not have always been right the first time.” He added that “the “bottom line is . . . I want us to get the folks who did it, and I want us to figure out what are the lessons learned.” That’s the right focus — and it’s what Congress should hold the administration accountable for.