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 You Tube. 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.
Ultimately, when the head of the National Counterterrorism Center was asked pointblank on Capitol Hill whether it was a an act of terror — and he agreed — the administration talking points began to shift. (Tough news reporting — as well as statements by Libya’s president — also played a role.) Yet President Obama himself resisted using the “t” word, even as late as Tuesday, while keeping the focus on the video in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
On Wednesday, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged also that Obama himself believes the attack was terrorism — and so more than two weeks after the attack the Rubicon finally was crossed.
As a reader service, we have compiled a comprehensive timeline of administration statements, showing the evolution in talking points, with key phrases highlighted in bold. Many readers sent suggestions for this timeline, for which we are deeply grateful.
We will leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions on whether this is merely the result of the fog of war and diplomacy — or a deliberate effort to steer the storyline away from more politically damaging questions. After all, in a competitive election, two weeks is a lifetime.