Top Democrats have accused Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney of "cravenly" politicising the deadly attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi to further his presidential ambitions.
The fallout from the attack has developed into a toxic political issue as Romney and Democratic President Barack Obama wage an all-out battle in a tight race. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US diplomatic staff were killed when militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades launched an assault on the compound in the eastern Libyan city on September 11.
Legitimate questions about inadequate security, the Obama Administration's muddled response, the future of the Arab Spring, even al-Qaeda's rise in northern Africa, have become conflated with bitter partisan politicking.
Vice-President Joe Biden muddied the waters in a debate with Romney's running-mate Paul Ryan on Friday when he replied "we weren't told" when asked about unheeded requests for greater security before the attack.
Romney railed at Biden the following day for "doubling down on denial", accusing him of contradicting sworn testimony from US officials who said the State Department had refused requests before the Benghazi assault.
The White House later clarified that Biden was speaking only for himself and the President, not the Administration, explaining that routine security requests for diplomatic missions don't go that high up the command chain.
Obama aides accused Romney of playing politics with tragedy, against the explicit wishes of Stevens's father. They reminded viewers that Romney had been roundly condemned, even by some Republicans, for criticising the Obama Administration for "sympathising" with extremists even as the events in Benghazi were still unfolding. "We don't need shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy, and when Mitt Romney first responded to what was going on in Libya, his own party called him out for insensitivity," Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said on CNN. Speaking on Fox News, fellow strategist David Axelrod agreed that "from the beginning of the issue, before any facts were known, he was cravenly trying to exploit it".
The Administration's evolving narrative on Benghazi has opened it up to sinister accusations. Five days after the attack, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said preliminary information indicated it had sprung from a spontaneous "copycat" protest against the anti-Muslim video.
Twelve days after Rice spoke, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed it was a "deliberate and organised terrorist attack" and said incorrect intelligence assessments were to blame for the Administration's misleading accounts. On October 10, the story changed again.
The State Department, briefing journalists on the eve of a congressional grilling, said the streets around the consulate had been calm before the attack, contradicting previous accounts of a protest.
"There wasn't a soul around the compound. And the co-ordinated attack lasted for hours with al-Qaeda-associated militia," leading Republican senator Lindsey Graham told CBS. "My belief is that that was known by the Administration within 24 hours. And, quite frankly, Susan Rice [and] the President ... kept talking about an attack inspired by a video."
Graham claimed the Obama Administration hid the truth because it didn't want its wider narrative about a diminished al-Qaeda to be shown as so transparently false."
Three separate probes are now investigating what happened in Benghazi. "We're learning stuff each and every day about what happened, that's what an investigation is supposed to do," Gibbs told CNN.
- AFPBy Andrew Gully