New Front in Campaign as G.O.P. Seizes on Libya Attack
By PETER BAKER and TRIP GABRIEL
Jim Wilson/The New York TimesMitt Romney continued his criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the Libya attack during a speech at a campaign event on Friday in Richmond, Va.
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- On Foreign Policy, Rivals Differing in Style but Often Similar in Substance (October 12, 2012)
- Show of Teeth Spurs a Debate Over Biden (October 13, 2012)
October 12, 2012
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s handling of the Libya attack has opened a new front in the presidential campaign just weeks before Election Day as Republicans seize on it to question the president’s performance as commander in chief.
The dispute over the episode escalated after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said during the debate on Thursday night that “we weren’t told” that Americans in Libya wanted security bolstered, despite Congressional testimony that the administration had turned down requests. Mitt Romney’s campaign on Friday accused the vice president of trying “to mislead the American public.”
The conflicting statements over security came after the administration’s fluctuating assessments of the attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. For President Obama, who had counted on foreign policy as a political strength, the issue has put him on the defensive, while Republicans who had focused on the economy now see a chance to undercut his credibility with the public on national security.
In a sense, the issue goes beyond foreign policy, which has not been a top priority for voters this year, polls show. Instead, Republicans are framing the matter as a larger indictment of Mr. Obama’s leadership and transparency, presenting him as unable to create enough jobs at home or protect American interests abroad, while trying to shift the blame to others. Democrats counter by accusing Republicans of politicizing a national tragedy.
Mr. Romney wasted little time in criticizing the vice president for contradicting testimony about security concerns in Libya. “He’s doubling down on denial,” Mr. Romney said during a rally in Richmond, Va. “And we need to understand exactly what happened, as opposed to just having people brush this aside. When the vice president of the United States directly contradicts the testimony, sworn testimony, of State Department officials, American citizens have a right to know just what’s going on, and we’re going to find out.”
Two officials in charge of security in Libya told a House committee this week that they asked for more security officers but were rebuffed by the State Department. Asked about that on Thursday night during his debate with Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mr. Romney’s running mate, Mr. Biden said: “We weren’t told they wanted more security again. We did not know they wanted more security again.”
The White House tried to explain Mr. Biden’s comments by saying that diplomatic security requests were handled by the State Department, not the White House. “The vice president was speaking about himself, the president and the White House,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “He was not referring to the administration.”
Mr. Carney was pressed repeatedly by reporters to explain what the president and the vice president knew and when they knew it, but he declined to answer in detail. Mr. Carney would not say whether Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden were specifically informed about the security concerns in Libya.
Mr. Carney accused Republicans of hypocrisy for voting against diplomatic security spending, singling out Mr. Ryan. “I find it rich that charges are made about concern over diplomatic security by those who routinely slash funding for diplomatic security to pay for tax cuts,” he said.
The government spent $2.43 billion on diplomatic security in the 2010 fiscal year, when Democrats last controlled both houses of Congress. The figure then fell to $2.29 billion in 2011 before rising to $2.37 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The administration asked for $2.84 billion for 2013, but House Republicans whittled that down to $2.62 billion.
Mr. Biden was expecting tough questions in the debate about the Benghazi attack and security concerns at the American mission there, according to people familiar with his preparation. But he still seemed caught off guard when the moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, pressed him on whether American diplomats had requested additional security in Libya.
Senior administration officials said Mr. Biden’s answer was accurate because while the embassy in Tripoli requested an extension of duty for 13 military or diplomatic security officers — which the State Department denied — it did not request additional guards for the mission in Benghazi. Moreover, they said, the request did not reach the White House.
The Libya attack has risen to the forefront of the campaign even as other foreign policy issues, like the war in Afghanistan and the building confrontation with Iran, have remained secondary topics. The administration at first attributed the deaths of Mr. Stevens and the others to an opportunistic attack taking advantage of protests against an anti-Islam film. Officials eventually termed the assault a terrorist attack tied to Qaeda sympathizers and played down the protest angle.
“First they blame a YouTube video and a nonexistent riot,” Mr. Ryan told supporters in Lancaster, Ohio. “Then when the country’s getting upset about it, they blame Romney and Ryan for getting people upset about it.”
How much the issue has influenced voters remains uncertain. Approval of Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign policy fell from 54 percent in August to 49 percent last month after the Benghazi attack, while disapproval rose from 40 percent to 46 percent, according to a survey by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal at the end of September.
At the same time, Republicans are focusing attention on national security even as they worry that the economy may not offer as much traction as they once thought. Polls have shown some increasing optimism about the economy as unemployment has fallen to 7.8 percent, the lowest it has been during Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Mr. Romney ratcheted up his criticism of the president over Benghazi all week, but he has intentionally stayed one or two steps behind fiercer Republican critics in Congress, his advisers said. He has not joined Congressional Republicans in accusing the administration of playing down a terrorist link to the attack to save the president from embarrassment close to the election.
The campaign wants to avoid a repetition of its first hasty response to the attack, when Mr. Romney accused the administration of apologizing to protesters, a statement widely criticized as irresponsible. Mr. Romney began the week with a speech on foreign policy at Virginia Military Institute that was intended to offer a reset on his credibility as a commander in chief. The effort will continue at the second presidential debate on Tuesday, the first time foreign policy will be a topic between him and Mr. Obama.