WASHINGTON — The lethal attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya last month has created an unexpected casualty: White House hopes that President Barack Obama would remain relatively unscathed on foreign policy issues in the presidential race.
Questions about whether the Obama administration ignored requests for beefed-up security in Libya and why a sizable CIA presence in Benghazi failed to foresee an attack by dozens of armed extremists have become a distraction — if not a problem — for the president's re-election campaign.
With less than four weeks until Election Day, the White House is being asked regularly whether security lapses contributed to the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11. After a contentious House hearing this week on security in Libya, the first question to Joe Biden at the vice presidential debate on Thursday was "Wasn't this a massive intelligence failure?"
The president — who as commander in chief ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — is now referring questions on what went wrong in Libya to his State Department.
"Matters of security personnel are appropriately discussed and decided upon at the State Department by those responsible for it," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday as reporters again grilled him.
On Libya, the Republican criticism is two-pronged: questioning whether the Obama administration took the proper precautions to protect U.S. missions in Libya and whether it told the truth about what happened.
The House oversight committee hearing Wednesday featured two officials who had served at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and who testified that they had asked the State Department for additional protection. In the vice presidential debate, Biden denied knowledge of those requests. "Well, we weren't told they wanted more security again," he said. "We did not know they wanted more security again."
On Friday, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called Biden out for that assertion. Speaking to about 3,300 supporters at a rally in Richmond, Va., the former Massachusetts governor said Biden was "doubling down on denial."
"When the vice president of the United States directly contradicts the testimony — sworn testimony — of State Department officials, American citizens have a right to know just what's going on. And we're going to find out," Romney said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Friday that the administration "to this day" did not yet have a "complete picture" of what happened in Benghazi.
"We do not have all the answers," she said. "No one in this administration has ever claimed otherwise. Every one of us has made clear that we are providing the best information we have at that time. And that information continues to be updated."