By Senators Jay Rockefeller and Carl Levin
Nearly 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the President Obama last week accusing our ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, of having "propagated a falsehood." They said that she "willfully or incompetently misled the American public" regarding the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 and 12. Several Republican senators have made similar accusations.
These claims are not based on facts, and it is time we as a nation end this sideshow and get serious about analyzing the causes of and lessons from this tragedy. Terrorist threats to U.S. facilities, personnel and interests are real, and they call for our careful attention.
There is not a shred of evidence that the administration or our intelligence agencies have engaged in a "cover-up" of the self-evident fact that terrorists attacked our facilities in Benghazi.
Almost immediately after the attack, officials knew that unidentified militants, terrorists and other extremists and heavily armed men had perpetrated the attacks. Despite the politicized misinformation about a purported "cover-up," this fact was not in dispute.
To the contrary, administration officials at every level immediately attributed the attacks to terrorists, beginning in the Rose Garden at 10:43 a.m. on Sept. 12, when the president referred to the attacks as "acts of terror," and later, on Sept. 16, when Ambassador Rice said "extremists" were involved in the attacks. On Sept.18, in an appearance on the David Letterman show, the president explained that "extremists and terrorists used (the anti-Muslim YouTube video) as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies."
This was the assessment of the intelligence community at that time for good reason. The intelligence community was extremely concerned about the waves of deadly violence that were spreading throughout more than 10 countries in the Arab and Muslim world regarding the video.
This is why administration officials prominently mentioned the video during that period. The ongoing protests over the video were a serious danger for thousands of Americans and our friends in those countries. Thankfully, these protests have receded, but the danger that they posed in September has been completely forgotten amidst the political attacks regarding Benghazi.
In Benghazi itself, the question was never whether terrorists had been involved in the attacks -- we knew from the beginning that they had been. The only question was exactly which terrorists were involved and what planning went into the attack.
In the early days after the attack, there were streams of reporting that indicated that terrorists had exploited a demonstrationin Benghazi that had been prompted by the separate violent demonstration over the anti-Muslim video earlier that day in Cairo. This was the formal intelligence assessment at the time and that assessment formed the basis for talking points approved on Sept. 15 for public discussion that, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said, "provided the best information available at the time, protected sensitive details and reflected the evolving nature of rapidly incoming intelligence."
This approach is both prudent and responsible -- unlike the attacks being levied against Ambassador Rice.
Later, as more information came in, the intelligence community assessed that what analysts had preliminarily believed to be a demonstration that evolved into a more organized attack was, in fact, a large gaggle of terrorists, militants, vandals and looters who waged a "direct assault." The intelligence assessment remains that the timing of the attacks was prompted in part by the violent demonstrations over the video earlier that day in Cairo.
The salient point, however, is that terrorists saw an opportunity to attack that evening and they took it, killing four Americans. The notion that the administration tried to cover up this fact is baseless.
In Rice's case, these allegations are more than baseless. They are deeply unfair. Ambassador Rice was simply reporting the best available intelligence that could be publicly disclosed at the time. Those who charged that she "intentionally misled" the public should retract that accusation. Claims that she should somehow have contradicted or overridden the best assessments of intelligence professionals are without factual foundation.
In fact, the talking points that were the basis for public comments by Rice and others were prepared at the request of the House Intelligence Committee. Those talking points were approved by the heads of the componentsof the intelligence community, and despite Republican allegations, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the talking points were subject to any political influence. Clapper, former CIA director David Petraeus, and other top intelligence officials deny any such influence played a role.
The damaging speculation over the semantics of these talking points needs to end. We have far more pressing concerns than whether talking points refer to "assault" vs. "attack" or "extremists" vs. "al-Qaeda-linked extremists."
Instead, we should focus our unified energy and attention on the life-and-death questions of how we can better collect information on threats to our nation, and how we can better protect the brave American men and women seeking to advance American interests. These are important oversight questions, and there are Americans serving us overseas -- far away from the television cameras and the political talk shows -- whose lives depend on the answers.
These brave American volunteers risk their lives in our service, and we owe them more than political theater.