Fact checkers get a lot of grief these days, some of it well deserved. But when their craft is done well, they can be invaluable. In fact, my colleague Glenn Kessler doesn’t just check facts, he lays out the facts of the Libya embassy attacks that the rest of the media and, frankly, the Romney campaign have neglected to do. Kessler begins:
In any kind of confused overseas event, initial reports are often wrong. But the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including the ambassador, is a case study of how an administration can carefully keep the focus as long as possible on one storyline — and then turn on a dime when it is no longer tenable.
For political reasons, it certainly was in the White House’s interests to not portray the attack as a terrorist incident, especially one that took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead the administration kept the focus on what was ultimately a red herring — anger in the Arab world over anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube. With key phrases and message discipline, the administration was able to conflate an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Egypt — which apparently was prompted by the video — with the deadly assault in Benghazi.
Officials were also able to dismiss pointed questions by referring to an ongoing investigation.
Shorter: The administration came up with a cock and bull story, changed on a dime when the lie couldn’t be sustained and now are trying to duck hard questions. Kessler’s step-by-step account of the administration’s changing statements should be read in full.
I will offer a few more additions beyond the administration’s own statements.
First, as Eli Lake reported, there was knowledge within the administration within 24 hours of the attack that this was likely a terrorist assault. On Kessler’s timeline this would mean that from Jay Carney’s September 13 comments (claiming the administration was “responding to the movie that has circulated on the Internet”) until September 19 when Matthew Olsen of the National Counterterrorism Center in effect spilled the beans that this was a “terrorist” attack, the administration repeatedly told the American people an untrue story. Even after Olsen spoke up, the president continued to dissemble. On September 20 in his Univision interview he insisted, “What we’ve seen over the last week, week and a half, is something that actually we’ve seen in the past, where there is an offensive video or cartoon directed at the prophet Muhammad.” So it’s not simply wishful thinking by the administration, one could conclude, but willful deception that was behind the untrue assurances if Lake’s account is correct. You would think the media at large would think that important.
Second, the timeline when placed against actual events in Libya is quite revealing. On 9/11/2012 at about 4:30 a.m. and then 6:00 a.m. and again at 11:00 a.m. (all Eastern Time) the Cairo embassy was sending out messages apologizing for the anti-Muslim video. The White House said nothing until after 10 p.m. that night. The president went from 4:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. with the only “official” statements being apologetic in tone about the video. The problem was not only what was being said that was so wrongheaded, but also the fact the White House had been silent, implicitly seeming to agree with its embassy’s statements.
When Mitt Romney stepped forward that evening, it was to express “outrage over the attacks” and bemoan that for hours the responses had been to criticize the anti-Muslim video, which intelligent observers then and everyone now knows was not the origin of the attacks. Which was the egregious reaction — Romney’s or the mute president’s?
Third, since the media firestorm following his comments, the Romney-Ryan team has acted gun shy, as if they are nervous that too much pointed talk from them will anger the mainstream media. Well, they are right; the mainstream media have done an appalling job in covering or not covering the story and they’ll go nuts whatever Romney says. But it is wrong to delay and delay a full onslaught against the president. Because the media coverage is so unbalanced is all the more reason for Romney to be bold. Otherwise how are voters supposed to understand what is at stake?
Now it’s true the GOP campaign criticized the horrendous “bump in the road” remarks and Romney at times has said the president should come forward with an explanation. And today senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom began to make the case on Fox News saying that “President Obama needs to be held accountable for his administration’s attempts to mislead the American people about what happened in Benghazi. We were initially told that this was a spontaneous demonstration in response to a video . . . The administration sent their ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, on the Sunday shows to defend the position. Now we are learning it was a preplanned terrorist attack conducted on the anniversary of 9/11 and that it involved elements of al-Qaeda.” That’s it, now where are the candidates whose words will resonate beyond the limited Fox morning viewership?
The Romney-Ryan team is convinced it will win on the economy. Maybe. However, I would argue that it fails to see that the same arguments on domestic policy — we have a passive president in denial as events spin out of control — are illustrated vividly by Obama’s failures on the national security side of the ledger. You can’t however make the argument about failed leadership if you’re scared the media will say mean things about you. You see the problem?
Romney has promised a big foreign policy speech for some time now. When and if he gets to it he should shove the cowering advisers aside and say what he knew to be the truth on 9/11 when he stepped forward while the White House remained mute: This president doesn’t get or won’t admit the ongoing threat of Islamic extremism, and his denial will get Americans killed.
The race, I believe, is closer than many of the polls portray. But you can’t win the presidency by sidestepping the big issues, in part because you can’t sidestep the big issues once you are president. You can’t gauge every utterance by what the media will spin, in part because you can’t gauge every decision out of fear of media fallout once you are president. Let’s see what Romney says and how soon he says it. It will help answer the question not whether he will win the race but whether he deserves to.