One Day Like This
Take It On The Run
Labelled with Love
Matt Wells in New York, Sunday 30th September 2012 20:37
The White House has defended its ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, after criticism from Republicans determined to exploit the Obama administration's shifting position on the attack in Libya that killed the US ambassador.
David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser, said on Sunday that Barack Obama had "100% confidence" in Rice, who initially described the Benghazi attack as a spontaneous assault in the wake of anti-US protests elsewhere in the Middle East.
Late last week the White House began calling it a planned terrorist attack by forces who may have been linked to al-Qaida, prompting criticism of Rice from senior Republican figures.
On Friday, Peter King, chairman of the House of Representatives homeland security committee, said Rice should resign for "misinforming" the American public in the interviews she gave in the aftermath of the attack. "Somebody has to pay the price for this," he told CNN.
Republicans sense an opportunity in what they regard as the White House's faltering reaction to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on 11 September, when a mob set fire to the building, killing the ambassador, Chris Stevens.
After initially describing the attack as opportunistic in the wake of protests against an internet video made in the US that was offensive to Muslims, the White House changed tack. Speaking to reporters on the campaign trail on Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney described it as "terrorism".
Libya's president, Mohamed Magariaf, has also blamed "al-Qaida elements" for the death of Stevens and three other Americans working for the state department.
The issue is sensitive to the Obama campaign, which has made the killing of Osama bin Laden and the president's determination to beat al-Qaida a central plank of his re-election effort. Also, any suggestion that groups linked to al-Qaida were gaining ground in Libya would be a blow to the US-backed international coalition that mounted air strikes which eventually led to the downfall of the former Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
In a statement on Friday, Shawn Turner, the director of public affairs for national intelligence, clarified the position. He said: "In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to executive branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available. Throughout our investigation, we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving."
A lack of information about the circumstances of the attack has left open the question of whether it was planned in a few hours, to take advantage of a spontaneous anti-US protest in Egypt against the anti-Muslim video, or whether it was planned over longer term to mark the 11th anniversary of al-Qaida's 9/11 attacks on the US.
In the NBC interview on Sunday, Plouffe defended the change of explanation for the Benghazi attack. "I think now based on the recommendations and the investigation of the intelligence community, they made the decision to conclude that this was a terrorist attack. In the days after, that was not clear. This was a very fast-moving period of time … we provided information that we received from the intelligence community as we got it."
Plouffe insisted that Rice had the full backing of the administration. Asked by Meet the Press host David Gregory if Barack Obama had "100% confidence in her", he said: "Absolutely. She's done a terrific job for this country, for this administration."
The response to the attack has rapidly become an election issue in the past few days. On Friday, the former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who sought the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008, accused the White House of a cover-up.
Speaking to Fox News, Giuliani said: "This is a deliberate attempt to cover up the truth, from an administration that claimed it wanted to be the most transparent in history. And it's the worst kind of cover-up: the kind of cover-up that involves our national security. This is a cover-up that involves the slaughter of four Americans."