BOSTON — As the nation careens toward this cliff-hanger presidential election, some Republicans are now striving to gain traction on a matter that it regards as an Obama-defeating October surprise: the Benghazi attacks.
The current assault, based on emails leaked to the media, asserts that the White House was aware that a terrorist group had claimed responsibility for the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11 this year.
One leaked email, sent within two hours of the assault, carries the subject line, “Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack.”
Republicans argue that Obama’s failure to go public with that information amounts to a cover-up — an effort to protect his counter-terrorism credentials, despite this painful blow. And they hope voters conclude that this makes him unfit to lead the nation.
Surely, after the fiasco of the Iraq war, Republicans know the risks of going public too quickly with supposedly irrefutable intelligence.
Colin Powell (the Republican Gulf War hero who endorsed Obama this morning) knows this well, having testified to the United Nations that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
That irony aside, consider the options the president faced after the attack in Benghazi.
Obama could either a) publicly announce that Ansar-al-Sharia had claimed responsibility, or b) remain silent regarding the perpetrator.
He chose the second option.
The fact that the US embassy in Cairo had been assaulted the same day by extremists irate over a video insulting the Prophet lent uncertainty and to the intelligence (eg, could Ansar-al-Sharia merely be capitalizing on a popular uprising over the video? Could they have been motivated by the video?).
It also provided a plausible explanation for the assault — one that media organizations and the American public initially accepted.
Now consider the first option: announcing to the world that this Libya-based terrorist group had claimed responsibility for the attack. Obama's Republican critics imply that choice would have clearly been the responsible one.
But would that have been in the best interests of the United States?
Terrorist groups want nothing more than notoriety, so that they can build their ranks and entice new recruits to their cause. That’s why Ansar al-Sharia took to Facebook to claim credit in the first place. What better way to grab global notoriety than to have the president of the world's most powerful nation essentially “like” your announcement to the entire world?
Think of it from the State Department's perspective: If a terrorist group can build its brand by killing a US Ambassador, taking credit for it on Facebook, and having the president announce it, that's not exactly going to make other US Ambassadors safe.
The morning after the attack, Obama delivered a Rose Garden speech calling it an act of terrorism (see this White House transcript). He vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, and arrests are being made.
Of course, informing the public is a critical feature of democracy, and the president needs to weigh the benefits of disclosure with the drawbacks. In the case of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, President Bush made the right decision in announcing the perpetrators, given the scope of the attack and response, and the fact that (unlike in Libya) Al Qaeda resided in hostile, Taliban-controlled territory where the matter couldn’t be handled by law enforcement officials.
In keeping quiet about the nature of the Libyan attack, was President Obama motivated in part by a desire to protect his counter-terrorism record? Perhaps. But either way, he made a decision that was arguably in the best interest of America.
Unfortunately, thanks to the GoP’s relentless efforts to politicize the matter, Ansar al-Sharia is now a household name.