Political fight over Benghazi Consulate attack shifts after CIA revelations

Senior U.S. intelligence officials sought to throw a wrench in Republican attacks over Libya when they provided a timeline detailing CIA officers rushing to aid State Department personnel under attack in Benghazi.

The account from intelligence officials, provided on Thursday, contradicted reports that Washington had given a “stand down” order to requests for help as the consulate in Benghazi was under attack on Sept. 11.

The alleged “stand down” order had become the latest criticism over Libya, with the GOP hammering the Obama administration for its handling of the Benghazi incident before, during and after the attack. 

But the new account from intelligence officials has the potential to shift the political debate that continues about the attack. 

“I think that’s what their intention was with putting that story out,” one Democratic congressional aide said of the intelligence officials’ disclosures.

“It seems to be that the Republicans are seizing on ambiguities as failures,” the aide said. “This provides — at least it appears to be the CIA’s goal — a pretty clear picture of what happened.”

Republicans did not issue statements on Friday commenting on the new details revealed by U.S. intelligence officials, which emerged in a Wall Street Journal report that the operation in Benghazi was primarily operated by the CIA, not the State Department. 

But GOP aides said CIA involvement in the Benghazi attack does little to resolve most of the overarching problems with the White House response to Libya. They believe the issue will continue to be talked about and investigated by Republicans through Election Day — and beyond.

“There were heroic actions taken at the time, but they don’t necessarily change or negate the malpractice that appeared to have happened before and after,” said one Republican aide.

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteHow Gorsuch's confirmation shapes the next Supreme Court battle THE MEMO: Trump set to notch needed win with Gorsuch Gorsuch sherpa: Dems giving GOP ‘no choice’ on nuclear option MORE (R-N.H.), who has been a vocal critic on Benghazi, told the New Hampshire Union Leader Friday that the timeline “still doesn’t answer the question of why security at the consulate was so inadequate, frankly, despite two prior attacks on the consulate, one in April and one in June.”

The attack in Benghazi had taken on a major role in presidential campaign last month. Mitt Romney sharply criticized President Obama over the administration’s shifting position on the cause of the attack. 

But even as Romney moved away from focusing on Libya in recent weeks, Republicans in Congress have continued to raise the issue.

A half-dozen congressional committees — led by both Republicans and Democrats — have launched investigations into the Benghazi attack. A closed-door hearing is scheduled in the Senate Intelligence Committee the week Congress returns.

Sens. John McCainJohn McCainWeek ahead: Pentagon funding in the balance as deadline looms Kasich: 'I think political parties are on their way out' Five fights for Trump’s first year MORE (R-Ariz.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamRussian interference looms over European elections Graham: I’m ‘all in’ for Trump Graham: US on a collision course with North Korea MORE (R-S.C.) and Ayotte on Saturday called on the Senate to convene a new Select Committee to investigate the Libya attack across multiple federal agencies.

The new focus on the CIA could alter congressional reaction and investigations into Benghazi.  

Much of the criticism has centered around the State Department and White House after four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the attack.

Still, the new account of CIA involvement only covers the night of the incident, which is just one element of Republican criticism on Libya. It's unlikely to halt discussion on the other issues being raised:

Before the attack:

In the days following the incident, reports emerged showing security problems existed in Benghazi before the Sept. 11 attack occurred. 

Details from Stevens’s own journal showed the ambassador had expressed concerns for his security in Libya.

There were reports of several incidents in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attack, including assailants blowing through the consulate wall.

State Department officials requested additional security agents in Benghazi in March and July, but did not receive a response.

Republicans have raised questions about why the security issues went unnoticed, and why there wasn’t heightened security when the attack occurred — on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.

The Wall Street Journal Thursday said that the CIA officers in Benghazi were supposed to provide backup security for the State officials, but that the two agencies did not have the details of the agreement locked down.

During the attack:

The Fox News report last week that officials in Benghazi were told to “stand down” when they were under attack has received some of the heaviest pushback from the administration.

The White House denied the reports earlier this week, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was compelled to issue a statement denying the head of U.S. Africa Command was leaving his post due to the incident.

The timeline from U.S. intelligence officials’ timeline on Thursday revealed that a CIA team traveled down from Tripoli after learning of the attack.

But beyond the “stand down,” questions have been raised about why the military did not intervene as the attack occurred.

McCain on Friday requested a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee to look at the military’s role in the attack and why “there were no forces in the region on sufficient alert that could have arrived in time to affect the outcome of the conflict.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that the intelligence in Benghazi was too murky to send in U.S. troops, an assessment he and the Pentagon’s top generals agreed with. He also said the attack was over too quickly for U.S. troops to intervene.

After the attack:

Republicans almost immediately began to accuse the Obama administration of deliberately misleading voters about what transpired on the night of Sept. 11 in order to protect the president's lead on national security issues.

The attacks redoubled after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, continued to link the attack to a U.S.-made anti-Islam video on Sunday news shows five days after the attack.

While the administration took five more days to categorically label the assault a “terrorist attack” — Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonWeek ahead: US raises pressure on WikiLeaks Poll: 85 percent of Clinton supporters would vote for her again OMB director: Government shutdown not a 'desired end' MORE did so on Sept. 21 — the administration has defended Rice. It says her talking points were based on the latest assessment from the CIA.

Authorities have since acknowledged there was never a peaceful protest prior to the attack. But reporters on the ground in Benghazi say witnesses and perpetrators of the attack maintain it was prompted by anger over the video, which was getting widespread attention in the Arab world at the time.

Republicans have also hit Obama for not calling the incident a terrorist attack, most famously when Mitt Romney criticized Obama during the second presidential debate.

Obama said during the debate that he had described it as an “act of terror” in a Rose Garden speech the day after the incident. He did, however, pass up chances to label it terrorism in subsequent interviews.