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COLUMN

Here's the question Romney must ask in Tuesday's debate

Obama administration's stories about Libya just don't add up

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - 7:21 am

Sure, he was rude, condescending and even a little goofy at times. But Vice President Joe Biden did a much better job of defense and attack in last week's debate than his boss had done against Mitt Romney on Oct. 3.

Biden's “gotcha” of Republican Paul Ryan's criticism of the very stimulus spending he had solicited as a Congressman for constituents in Wisconsin nearly rivaled Democrat Lloyd Bentsen's stinging “You're no Jack Kennedy” rebuke of Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle back in 1988.

But just as that moment proved to be a Pyrrhic victory – George H.W. Bush and Quayle carried 40 states against Bentsen and his running mate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis – Biden's efforts to shield the Obama administration from potential scandal may ultimately prove counterproductive.

As has now been widely reported and acknowledged, the Sept. 11 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead was not the result of spontaneous outrage over an obscure anti-Muslim Internet video, but a planned and well-organized terrorist act.

The problem for the Obama administration, of course, is that the president, his spokesman, United Nations ambassador and others continued to blame the video long after others had begun to question that version of events – a discrepancy Ryan legitimately tried to exploit.

To which Biden essentially replied: Don't blame us -- blame U.S. intelligence sources and the State Department (which is responsible for U.S. diplomats).

But there are several potential dangers lurking in that argument, not the least being the reinforcement of the perception that the Obama administration is better at deflecting responsibility than it is at admitting mistakes.

For starters, the timeline just doesn't work. On Sept. 17, just one day after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice reassured the nation on numerous TV shows that terrorism had nothing to do with the attack, Fox News quoted sources in Libya confirming there had been no “spontaneous” uprising. On Sept. 19, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center labeled it a “terrorist” attack. And yet, on Sept. 26, President Obama was still blaming the video in a speech before the U.N.

For another, it may not be wise for a vice president to throw a secretary of state under the bus just weeks before an election – especially when that secretary's name is Clinton. Revelations that requests for additional security in Libya prior to the attack were denied by the State Department are serious and troubling, such a public attempt to shift blame from the president to a prominent member of his “team” is both rare and smacks of political desperation. The buck stops at the top. Doesn't it?

As for the reliability of intelligence reports, Biden may have had a point: On Sept. 28, the spokesman for National Intelligence Director James Clapper acknowledged there had been a revision of “our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.” Whether that information really was “new” (it had been reported by others days earlier) should not obscure the fact that our spies don't always get everything right – which means actions and statements based on such reports may at times be honest mistakes, not outright lies.

But even that creates a problem for members of the political left who insisted the second President Bush lied about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The war may or may not have been a good idea – I've always been ambivalent about it – but there's no denying much of the world believed intelligence reports about Iraq's stockpile of WMDs.

Among those saying so was Biden himself, who in 2002 called Iraq “a threat to our national security” and added that the U.S. had “no choice but to eliminate the threat . . . Saddam either has to be separated from his weapons or taken out of power.”

And if our intelligence really isn't 100 percent reliable, how could Biden confidently tell Ryan that stronger actions against Iran are unnecessary because we would “know” when it was getting close to developing a nuclear weapon?

So despite Biden's best efforts and Obama campaign spokesman Stephanie Cutter's insistence that politics alone is driving scrutiny of the Benghazi attack, Romney should ask that classic Nixon-era question: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

That's not about politics. It's about accountability. And nobody died in Watergate.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.