President Obama’s advisers claim to be doing the best they can in difficult circumstances to explain what happened in the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.
But their questionable claim out of the gate that the attack was a “spontaneous” outburst triggered by protests over an anti-Islam film in neighboring Egypt fits a pattern, critics say, of downplaying both attempted and successful terrorist strikes.
“It’s the nothing-to-see-here answer,” said Republican strategist Tony Sayegh.
The administration has been slowly and carefully walking back the initial narrative in Libya, though officials continue to stand by the claim that the strike was not preplanned — despite mounting evidence and claims from top lawmakers that the attackers conducted at least some planning. Last week, top officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, called the attack terrorism. Obama will have an opportunity at the United Nations meeting in New York this week to clarify further.
After the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting in which 13 people were killed, it took months for an administration official to publicly call the attack terrorism. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made that distinction during a Senate hearing in February. Before that, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates declined to use the term, as did FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Further, a Pentagon letter at one point likened the Fort Hood massacre to workplace violence.
A year later, following the attempted Christmas Day bombing, Obama in his first public statement referred to suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an “isolated extremist.” However, evidence was already surfacing that Abdulmutallab had worked closely with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — which was emerging as one of the most influential Al Qaeda affiliates and whose members have been targeted by U.S. drone strikes.
AQAP later claimed responsibility for the attempted attack on a Detroit-bound jet.
Perhaps most similar to the current difficulty the administration is having explaining the nature of a terrorist attack is what happened after the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010.
Initially, Napolitano described the attempted strike as a “one-off.”
Top Obama officials later took to the airwaves on the Sunday news shows to explain that suspect Faisal Shahzad was actually working for the Pakistani Taliban. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder explained that the suspect was likely trained and funded by the group.
Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs likewise took to the airwaves this past Sunday to explain more about Libya — though he mostly defended the administration rather than issuing a correction to last week’s claims.
“No one either intentionally or unintentionally misled anyone involved in this,” Gibbs said on “Fox News Sunday.” “No one wants to get to the bottom of this more than we do.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice gave her explanation on five Sunday morning TV talks shows a week earlier. She said the Libya attack was “spontaneous” and started with the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, over an anti-Islamic film.
Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers said Monday the question now is whether the Obama administration lied or is clueless. She acknowledged neither is a great scenario.
Powers suggested the administration was downplaying the Libya attack because it might undermine the narrative that Al Qaeda is being defeated.