The killing of the US ambassador to Libya is rapidly becoming election fodder, as Republicans seize on confusion over Chris Stevens' death in Benghazi
The killing of the US ambassador to Libya is rapidly becoming election fodder, as Republicans seize on confusion over the circumstances of Chris Stevens' death in Benghazi three weeks ago and accuse the Obama administration of covering up an al-Qaeda connection.
US officials reiterated on on Friday that they regard the killing of Stevens and three other Americans working for the state department at the US consulate in Benghazi as an assault by terrorists who planned the attack. But a dearth of real information about the exact circumstances of the assault has left open the question of whether such planning was merely the work of a few hours, to take advantage of a spontaneous anti-US protest over a short internet video that prompted demonstrations across the Middle East by offended Muslims, or weeks and months, to mark the 11th anniversary of al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on the US.
Disagreement over that question is dividing along political lines.
Earlier this week, Republican senators wrote to the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, demanding that she explain her statement, five days after the killings, that they were part of a spontaneous anti-US protest. Four senators signed the letter, including John McCain, which said Rice made "several troubling statements that are inconsistent with the facts and require explanation".
The former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani, who sought the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008, went further, accusing 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."
Rice's explanation of a spontaneous assault by a well-armed Libyan militia was maintained by the administration until 10 days ago when Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, called the killings a terrorist attack.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and the defence secretary, Leon Panetta, this week shifted away from the initial line. Clinton on Wednesday hinted that the al-Qaeda offshoot in North Africa may be tied up with the Benghazi assault.
"Now with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to manoeuvre, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions," Clinton told a meeting of international leaders at the UN which discussed the crisis in North Africa, including the seizure of northern Mali by armed Islamist forces. "And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi."
Administration officials were careful to say afterwards that Clinton was not claiming firm evidence of a link. Olsen was similarly cautious in speaking to senators this week.
"The picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved, so it's not necessarily an either/or proposition," he said.
Officials say that while there is some evidence that individual members of the local militia responsible for the attack, Ansar al-Shariah, may have been in touch with extremist elements in other countries, no hard information has so far emerged of a direct foreign or al-Qaeda link to the attack in Benghazi.
The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Martin Dempsey, on Thursday said there "was a thread of intelligence reporting that groups in the environment in eastern Libya were seeking to coalesce but there wasn't anything specific". He added that there was no intelligence indicating a looming attack.
Officials say US intelligence picked up a call by a member of al-Qaeda in North Africa celebrating the attack, but that is not hard evidence of a link.
Panetta said on Thursday that there was some preplanning involved in the assault.
"As we determined the details of what took place [in Benghazi], and how that attack took place it became clear that there were terrorists who had planned that attack," he said.
But whether that was over the proceeding hours, when the militia realised it could take advantage of the existing protest outside the consulate, or over the previous days and weeks remains a question investigators are struggling to answer. At present, the Americans are unable even to establish how large the protest was and how long it went on.
Administration officials continue to maintain that if there was preplanning, it was not long term. But some Republicans argue that there is already evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, of a plot. For a start, they say it is no coincidence that the assault on the Benghazi consulate was on 11 September.
The discovery in the wrecked consulate, by CNN, of Stevens' diary has also fed claims that the White House is underplaying a broader terrorist connection. Stevens wrote that he feared he was an al-Qaeda hit list and was alarmed by his lack of security after earlier attacks on US and British targets in Benghazi and amid what he described as a growing al-Qaeda presence in Libya.
The state department's furious reaction to CNN's reporting of Stevens' fears – calling the use of non-personal information from the diary without the family's approval "disgusting" – suggested alarm in the administration at the potential damage to its denials of a conspiracy and that it will be open to criticism that it did not provide sufficient protection to the Benghazi consulate.
There are also questions about the circumstances of Stevens death and whether Libyan militias knew he was at the consulate. However, given the large footprint American diplomats make as they move around the Middle East, it would not have been difficult to discern that an important US official had arrived in Benghazi.
Giuliani said the White House was reluctant to admit al-Qaeda involvement because it wants to dismiss that threat following last year's killing of Osama Bin Laden.
"I think it's because they have this narrative that they defeated al-Qaeda," he said. "They never say the words 'Islamic fundamentalist terrorism'. They want to wish it away. The president was moving on to Asia – he was going to declare this a great victory for himself and unfortunately, this terrible act of terror intervened in their very convenient narrative."
Libya's president, Mohamed Magariaf, has also made the link by blaming "al-Qaeda elements" hiding in his country for the death of Stevens and three other Americans working for the state department.
"It was a preplanned act of terrorism directed against American citizens," Magariaf said this week.
But claims of an al-Qaeda connection has been met with scepticism by others in Libya who say it is feasible for well armed militiamen to have taken advantage of the protests outside the US consulate to launch a substantial attack.
The likelihood of a definitive explanation any time soon looks dim.
The Obama administration has said an FBI investigation will establish the facts. But the New York Times on Friday reported that the FBI team remains in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, over 400 miles away, because of fears for its safety.
Meanwhile the crime scene of the killings in Benghazi has been picked over by Libyans, who are assumed to have compromised what ever evidence there was that would have been of use to investigators.
One US law enforcement official in Tripoli told the New York Times that they may never make it to Benghazi.