On Libya, What Did Obama Know — And When?

Libyan security guards hold flowers and slogans left by people protesting against a Sept. 11 attack on an American diplomatic facility that left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens dead. (ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/GettyImages)

What did you know? And when did you know it?

Those two questions, when asked collectively, have been asked of executive branch officials by lawmakers so often over the years they’ve become cliche.

But, so often on issues of national security matters, they’re among the few questions that matter.

As the Obama administration has struggled in recent weeks to explain the events that led to the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left the U.S. ambassador and three others dead, these are the questions Republicans are asking.The White House has said the attack was part of a protest sparked by an anti-Islam Internet video made in the United States. U.S. officials since have called it a terrorist attack, pinning blame on al Qaeda operatives.

Top Obama administration officials have offered differing public accounts about everything from requests for more security from the consulate to intelligence collected about a possible attack before Sept. 11.

On Oct. 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton essentially fell on her sword for President Barack Obama, publicly taking responsibility for the deadly attack.

But Clinton’s comment was unable to slow criticism from Republicans. That includes Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who wants to know what Obama and his top national security aides knew — and when they knew it.

“On June 6 … assailants placed an [improvised explosive device] on the northern gate of the United States Consulate in Benghazi,” Graham’s office said in an Oct. 16 statement. “The IED detonated and ripped a hole in the security perimeter that was described by one individual as, ‘big enough for [40] men to go through.’ This attack was preceded by an earlier IED attack against the Consulate in April 2012.

In a letter to Obama, Graham asks: “Mr. President, were you informed of these attacks on our Libyan consulate? If not, why not? Did you consider these serious events? If you were informed, what action was taken to protect the consulate?”

Graham also is demanding answers from CIA Director David Petraeus, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and John Brennan, the White House’s top counterterrorism and homeland security official.

The senator asks those Obama aides: “Did you inform the President of these attacks? If so, what action was taken to protect our consulate? If you did not inform the president, why not?”

Graham’s demands for more information comes just hours before Obama will square off with GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the duo’s second debate. The town hall-style debate will cover domestic and national security/foreign policy issues.

Graham’s questions are standard Washington fare. But they could become fodder for Romney to pin down Obama on his handling of the consulate attack.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett
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