Republicans hit Obama from all sides on response to Benghazi attack

Republicans are hitting President Obama from all sides over his handling of the attack in Libya as he prepares to go head-to-head with Mitt Romney in Monday night’s foreign policy debate.

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Bolstering the criticism of his Senate colleagues, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) took direct aim at the president in a sharply worded letter Friday demanding to know why the administration drew down the U.S. security presence in Libya amid a surge in violence.

“Americans … deserve a complete explanation about your administration's decision to accelerate a normalized presence in Libya at what now appears to be at the cost of endangering lives,” Issa wrote. “These critical foreign policy decisions are not made by low or mid-level career officials — they are typically made through a structured and well-reasoned process that includes the National Security Council at the White House.

“The ultimate responsibility rests with you as the President of the United States,” Issa wrote. The letter was accompanied by 166 pages of documents and photos.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Saturday the release of the documents exposed Libyan nationals working with the United States to possible danger.

"This is irresponsible and inexcusable, and perhaps worst of all it was entirely avoidable. It is profoundly against America's interests in a difficult region," Kerry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Senate hawks John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have flooded the TV airwaves to slam the administration's shifting account of the attack that killed four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Romney's foreign policy surrogate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is expected to carry the criticism forward during his three scheduled appearances on Sunday news shows.

And on Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s seven Republicans — including Rubio — demanded to know who leaked information about possible retaliation for the Libya assault.

“It seems counterintuitive to broadcast our intent to take action,” they wrote to Obama, “as that would certainly give those responsible for this terrorist attack a chance to take evasive measures.”

Romney and his allies have blasted the Obama administration for initially blaming the Libya attack on a video about Islam, saying it was obvious from the get-go that terrorists had targeted the U.S. on the anniversary of 9/11.

They have also seized on the testimony of State Department officials who said requests for added security in Libya had been denied by the Obama administration in the run-up to the attacks.

Democrats say Republicans are making a cynical attempt to use the slaying of a U.S. ambassador to undermine Obama's foreign policy record less than three weeks before the election.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, issued a scathing reply to Issa’s letter to Obama on Friday.

“It seems obvious that your goal in sending a public letter at this time is to release the most negative and distorted view possible of the attack in Benghazi ahead of the Presidential debate on Monday evening,” wrote Cummings. “This is particularly disturbing given requests by Ambassador Stevens’ family not to politicize his death as part of the campaign.”

Polls suggest the Libya assault has hurt the president with voters. A Pew poll released Thursday found that Obama’s lead on foreign policy has shrunk over the past month from a 15-point advantage over Romney to a lead of just four points.

A separate Pew poll taken last week, also released Thursday, found that a large chunk of independent voters disapprove of Obama's handling of the Libya situation, possibly helping Romney with a bloc of voters that could decide the election. Independents expressed disapproval of the president's handling of the attack by a margin of 40 percent to 28 percent.

Obama caught Romney flat-footed on the issue during Tuesday's debate when he said he'd called the assault an “act of terror” the very next day. But Romney is clearly not ready to let the issue drop, as evidenced by the flurry of recent actions from his allies on Capitol Hill.

The renewed focus of Senate Republicans on leaks from within the administration gives Romney a powerful new attack angle. The administration has come under heavy fire already for leaking information to the press about a thwarted terror plot in Yemen by an al Qaeda offshoot, secret U.S. intelligence programs against Iran, and the use of drones abroad.

Democrats have not sat idly by as the GOP foreign policy attacks have intensified.

“This is the president who promised the American people in 2008 that he’d end the war in Iraq in a responsible way, that he’d refocus on al-Qaeda, that he’d put forward a plan to end the war in Afghanistan and that he’d restore alliances around the world, and I think he's done those things,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Friday morning on MSNBC. “I have two words on Governor Romney's foreign policy record: blunder and bluster.”

LaBolt also said Romney's calls for keeping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would lead to “endless wars,” the theme of a new ad from the pro-Democrat Truman National Security Project that questions the cost of a war with Iran and the lack of an exit strategy.

Republicans might be able to pour some gasoline on the fire if the House Intelligence Committee gets the documents they have requested from intelligence agencies in the administration.

Though much of the requested information — pertaining to what intelligence agencies knew about potential threats to the U.S. in Benghazi and when they knew it — will likely be classified, the committee’s Republican chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, (Mich.) might gain access to new information about the White House’s knowledge of the Libya events as they unfolded that could either support the administration’s claims or undermine them.

“We, the committee, were in possession of information, provided by the intelligence community, that pretty much said this was a military–style attack within less than 24 hours,” said Rogers in an interview with CNN on Friday evening.

“This is what’s so disturbing to me about it: [Was the administration’s decision to say the attack was a result of the video] based on intelligence? It’s hard to say yes. So why did they do it? That’s the question I think we have to get answered.”

--This article was originally posted at 6 a.m. and last updated at 5:45 p.m.

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