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Editorial: Obama must tell truth about Benghazi attack

An armed man stands near the U.S. Consulate,

An armed man stands near the U.S. Consulate, in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three others were killed Sept. 11 when armed men stormed the consulate during a protest over a film seen as offensive to Islam. (Sept. 11, 2012) Credit: European Photopress Agency

Did President Barack Obama intentionally mislead the public about the nature of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya in the first days after the ambassador and three other Americans were killed? It's a tough question that needs to be answered candidly and completely.

The administration initially characterized the Sept. 11 attack as a spontaneous protest incited by an online, anti-Islam video. Within days, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who had initially insisted it was an impromptu protest despite contradictory reports from Libyan officials, began saying that well-armed, extremist elements may have opportunistically used the demonstration for their own purposes. But the story changed dramatically Sept. 19 when Director of National Intelligence Matthew Olson, in an answer to a direct question, said unequivocally it was a terrorist attack on our embassy. Days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others in the administration also began calling it a terrorist attack.

The who, what and why of violence a world away can be murky and take time to sort out. But this attack came during the heat of a presidential campaign, so suspicion that the administration may have cherry-picked intelligence to spin the story for partisan purposes is inescapable. Pointing to the changing narrative, Republicans have accused Obama of being slow to label it a terrorist attack to avoid undermining the claim that he has crippled al-Qaida and damped anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. If Obama shaded the truth, it's unconscionable.

Obama must be more forthcoming about what he knew and when he knew it. He may have the chance during the first presidential debate of this election season. Although that confrontation will focus on domestic policy, the Libya controversy should be too hot to avoid. If not then, Obama should be questioned extensively about it during the Oct. 16 foreign policy debate at Hofstra University.

Congressional hearings to probe the real story of Benghazi are warranted too, but likely won't happen until lawmakers return to work after the election. The sexy political question is whether the account of a spontaneous protest was dishonest spin, or an honest misreading of the situation based on the best information available at the time. But Congress needs to ask some substantive questions as well.

If the siege was a coordinated terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate on the anniversary of 9/11 and U.S. officials had no clue it was coming, then it was a deadly intelligence failure that must be dissected to determine what was missed and why. The United States clearly needs to know more about the operations of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations in the region. Officials also need to know if other U.S. diplomatic installations abroad are vulnerable. Security at embassies in other volatile nations has been augmented since the attack. But Congress should look hard at whether the steps the administration has taken are adequate.

Everything is political this close to a high-stakes election. But the safety of the nation's diplomats abroad must not become just one more thing to spin in a partisan game of damage control. We owe more to the people who risk their lives in service to the nation.

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