In conservative circles, the closing weeks of the election have involved a full-blown scandal: namely, that the Obama White House has covered up what really happened during the lethal Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The Obama Administration first failed to adequately protect U.S. personnel in Benghazi, this narrative holds; didn’t respond forcefully enough to save the four Americans who were killed; tried to deny that a coordinated attack occurred at all; and has concealed what the President and his top advisers knew about all this and when. “The Benghazi scandal” is how Fox News host Bret Baier referred to the story Thursday.
And yet Mitt Romney wants nothing to do with it. In the second presidential debate, Romney treated Benghazi as the most important national-security matter of the moment. But Romney sidestepped the issue in the final debate and, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t raised it since. It’s true that the topic blew up in Romney’s face in that second debate. But his sudden and complete abandonment of the topic has still been something of a mystery.
Now the story has taken a new twist, as Massimo Calabresi explains. It seems as through the most important actor during the attack may not have been the President, but CIA director David Petraeus. That leaves the story line more confused than ever. Petraeus, the reputed savior of Iraq, is a hero to many of the same conservatives who have been driving the Benghazi story in an effort to burn the President. Now it seems possible that their ire could burn the general more than the President. Although Friday’s reports indicate that the CIA responded fast and aggressively as the attack unfolded, it also appears that the agency could have been more vigilant about security at the site in advance. It also seems possible that Romney fell silent on this issue because he came to understand that Petraeus is at least as politically exposed as Obama. (Bear in mind that Romney was recently granted classified national-security briefings, as is the custom for major-party nominees.)
To be sure, Obama’s role in all this does remain frustratingly opaque. The White House hasn’t said whether the President was presented with any decision options during the attack, like whether to order drone or fighter-jet strikes in the area (although it’s far from clear that either would have been practical in a confused situation). It’s still not quite clear why the Administration blamed that infamous anti-Islamic video for the attack as long as it did, even as contradictory reports added up. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken responsibility in a broad sense for inadequate security at the consulate, but we still don’t know just how involved she was in that debate. And finally, if Fox News is right that special forces based in Italy were “told to wait” rather than deploy to the scene, we still don’t know who gave that order. (Note that former Pentagon big Paul Wolfowitz, who is no Obama defender, claims that a military team in Europe was in fact mobilized immediately but could not have reached Benghazi in time to save lives.)
These are all frustrating questions. And while an official investigation is still ongoing, the White House could be offering more detail without spilling secrets. “The Obama Administration needs to level with the country about why it made its decisions,” the Washington Post’s fair-minded national-security columnist — and frequent Obama defender — David Ignatius wrote this week. But it’s far from clear that the full backstory here amounts to the damning indictment of Barack Obama that some Republicans are intimating. Which may be why Mitt Romney doesn’t bother to mention it anymore.