WASHINGTON — Sensing a moment of political vulnerability on national security, Republicans pounced Friday on disclosures that President Barack Obama's administration could have known early on that militants, not angry protesters, launched the attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya.
Within 24 hours of the deadly attack, the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington that there were eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants, officials told the Associated Press. But for days, the Obama administration blamed it on an out-of-control demonstration over an American-made video ridiculing Islam's Prophet Mohammed.
Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, led Friday's charge.
"Look around the world, turn on your TV," Ryan said in an interview with WTAQ radio in the election battleground state of Wisconsin. "And what we see in front of us is the absolute unraveling of the Obama administration's foreign policy."
As a security matter, how the Obama administration immediately described the attack has little effect on broader counterterrorism strategies or on the hunt for those responsible for the incident, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. And Republicans have offered no explanation for why the president would want to conceal the nature of the attack.
But the issue has given Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney an opportunity to question Obama on foreign policy and national security, two areas that have received little attention in an election dominated by the U.S. economy. Obama's signature national security accomplishment is the military's killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Ryan was teeing up the issue for Monday's presidential debate on foreign policy.
"I'm excited we're going to have a chance to talk about that on Monday," Ryan said.
Obama, speaking Thursday on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, insisted that information was shared with the American people as it came in. The attack is under investigation, Obama said, and "the picture eventually gets filled in."
"What happens, during the course of a presidency, is that the government is a big operation and any given time something screws up," Obama said. ''And you make sure that you find out what's broken and you fix it."
The report from the station chief was written late Wednesday, Sept. 12, and reached intelligence agencies in Washington the next day, intelligence officials said. It is not clear how widely the information from the CIA station chief was circulated.
U.S. intelligence officials have said the information was just one of many widely conflicting accounts, which became clearer by the following week.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN that the administration didn't understand the gravity of the situation and as a result bad decisions were made to promote the video as the root of the violence.
"Were those decisions based on intelligence? I think it's hard to say yes. So why did they do it? That's the question we need to get answered."