On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists launched major, coordinated attacks on U.S. soil, killing more than 3,000 U.S. citizens. The attacks were successful despite CIA briefings delivered to President Bush in person more than a month earlier titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” In fact, as far back as May 2001, U.S. intelligence was warning that “a group presently in the United States” was plotting a terror attack. But tragically, too little was done to stop it.
In addition, for months after the attacks, top U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, claimed that the attacks had been planned and coordinated by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a claim that turned out to be utterly false but that Cheney and others used to help build political support for an ill-fated invasion of that country that cost an additional 4,000 American lives.
Eleven years later to the day — Sept. 11, 2012 — terrorists launched an attack on an isolated U.S. consulate in war-torn Libya, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. In the immediate wake of the attack, U.S. officials downplayed concerns of terrorism, incorrectly attributing the deaths to a mob protest against an anti-Islamic video that got out of hand. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained later, “we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
It’s pretty clear that U.S. officials could have and should have acknowledged earlier that the attacks were carried out by terrorists instead of by a mob. However it’s difficult to understand the immense significance attributed to that delay by some. There are also allegations that the U.S. State Department may have overlooked intelligence warnings of a possible attack and failed to upgrade security for Ambassador Chris Stevens, a man who was intimately familiar with Libya and knew the dangers inherent in leaving our fortified embassy in Tripoli.
I make this comparison not because I wish to relitigate the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The nation’s nonpartisan, unified response at the time was proper and appropriate, and while in hindsight it appears that more could have been done to prevent those attacks, in hindsight many things are apparent that are more difficult to appreciate in real time.
Instead, I’m interested in exploring why the aftermaths of the two events have played out so differently. In the wake of Event One, there was no effort to politicize the tragedy and no concerted effort to blame the Bush administration for failing to prevent an attack on our own territory, against civilians. Yet in the wake of Event Two, politicians were in such an unseemly rush to take partisan advantage of the tragedy that on the night of the attack itself, Mitt Romney actually accused President Obama of sympathizing with those who carried out the murder of our people.
Here’s the statement in full, for those who may have forgotten:
“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
By any rational comparison, the breach of security nine years ago was far more destructive, and was carried out on American soil where the expectation of safety was much greater. The intelligence failures involved were also far more profound. The Obama administration’s failure to immediately grasp and communicate what had happened in Benghazi, a site so dangerous that the FBI didn’t dare visit there until three weeks later, was certainly less important than Cheney’s utterly false claim that 9/11 was an Iraqi conspiracy.
So on what basis do Republicans believe that the attack on our Benghazi consulate in Libya, or the confused and confusing series of incorrect explanations that followed, constitute some major political scandal when the infinitely more serious attacks on New York City and Washington did not? And if a scandal does exist, why don’t Republicans share in the blame for having insisted on hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to embassy-security programs in the last two fiscal years?
Please. Explain all this to me, because I don’t get it.
– Jay Bookman