Now that people have had a few days to make fun of Mitt Romney’s gaffe, perhaps we can come to grips with the fact that the incumbent president’s claim to foreign policy/national security competence has been seriously undermined:
The deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya on Sept. 11 was preceded by a succession of security lapses and misjudgments, compounded by fog-of-battle decisions, that raise questions about whether the scope of the tragedy could have been contained.
U.S. officials issued alerts and ordered security precautions in neighboring Egypt ahead of protests and violence on Sept. 11, but largely overlooked the possibility of trouble at other diplomatic postings in the region.
The State Department chose to maintain only limited security in Benghazi, Libya, despite months of sporadic attacks there on U.S. and other Western missions. And while the U.S. said it would ask Libya to boost security there, it did so just once, for a one-week period in June, according to Libyan officials.
The U.S. didn’t seriously consider sending in the military during the attack. It summoned rapid-response teams of Marines only after the U.S. ambassador was dead. State Department officials said they doubted the Pentagon could have mobilized a rescue force quickly enough to make a difference during the fighting. The Pentagon waited for guidance from State, which is responsible for diplomatic security, a senior military official said.
Adding a new dimension to the chain of events, the siege also engulfed what officials now describe as a secret safe house used by American officials and security personnel involved in sensitive government programs after last year’s Libyan revolution.
Even when that building, also known as the “annex,” came under attack, U.S. officials were reluctant to divulge its existence, and the secrecy complicated the Libyan response and the eventual American evacuation, according to Libyan security officials.
The Obama administration has defended levels of security in place. Though intelligence officials are investigating indications al Qaeda’s North African affiliate had connections with militants who mounted the attack, U.S. officials say the evidence still indicates it was a spontaneous response to protests in Cairo against an anti-Islamic video. But a detailed review based on interviews with more than a dozen U.S. and Libyan officials shows months of ominous signals suggesting the need for better security, along with missed chances for delivering it.
It would be nice to think that the media will focus heavily on this story and that the administration will have its feet held to the fire for this disaster. And it would also be nice to think that after pretending otherwise, the media will admit that Romney had every right to raise questions over how this entire sorry episode transpired. I’m not holding my breath; most journalists have made clear that they are in Team Obama’s camp. But perhaps they will grow a conscience.
Even if they don’t, however, there is no reason why bloggers and voters can’t and shouldn’t continue to raise questions over how security for the consulate in Benghazi was managed. After all, the media may not of its own accord want to give too much attention to this story. But it may be forced to do so if enough pressure emerges from the ground up.