In my article of September 13,2012, titled Blood in Benghazi I had stated as follows:
“In Benghazi too, outside the US Consulate, there was a similar demonstration against the US by a group of unarmed local Muslims. The US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens who is based in Tripoli, was then on a visit to Benghazi and was inside the Consulate. The demonstrators did not appear to have been aware of this.
“While this demonstration was going on without posing any major problem to the security guards, another group of armed Muslims carrying fire-arms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) appeared on the scene and launched a commando-style attack on the Consulate. There was a heavy exchange of fire and use of grenades. The armed intruders with others entered the Consulate complex and tried to set fire to the buildings.
“By the time their attack could be brought under control after four hours, the Ambassador and three other American employees were killed. The circumstances under which they were killed are not clear.
“The CNN TV channel quoted State Department officials as saying that the two incidents at the diplomatic missions in Cairo and Benghazi were not related and that they believed the Benghazi violence was a "clearly planned attack." The CNN quoted a senior official as saying: "It was not an innocent mob. The video or 9/11 made a handy excuse and could be fortuitous from their perspective but this was a clearly planned military-type attack."
Thus, according to the CNN, in the briefings immediately after the Benghazi attack, unnamed spokespersons of the US State Department had characterised the attack on the Consulate that led to the death of the US Ambassador to Libya and three other US employees as a "clearly planned military type attack."
I had also stated as follows in my article:
“The speculation in Benghazi is that the commando-style attack was probably carried out by Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of the Sharia). The Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates from Yemen, has also been calling itself since last year as the Ansar al-Sharia. It is not yet clear whether the Ansar suspected in the Benghazi attack is the same as the Yemen-based wing of Al Qaeda or is an indigenous Libyan organisation.”
It was clear from the beginning that on September 11, 2012, there were two incidents outside the US Consulate—a spontaneous anti-US demonstration by a group of unarmed Muslims and a commando-style attack by a group of heavily armed persons suspected to be connected with Al Qaeda.
There was no confusion in the State Department briefing as reported by the CNN. A confusion was caused by the remarks of the US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who stated in a TV talk show on September 15, 2012, that the hours-long assault with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades on the US consulate was part of a spontaneous demonstration over an amateurish video that mocked the Prophet Mohammed.
It was not clear whether it was an unintentional slip-up by an ill-informed and ill-briefed Ambassador or whether it was a deliberate attempt by Ms Rice, who is one of the close advisers of President Barack Obama, to downplay the initial briefing of the State Department that it was a planned military-style attack in order to protect the President and his White House advisers from any allegations of complacency and softness towards the terrorist elements in Libya during the current Presidential election campaign.
As one had seen during the election campaign of Mr George Bush for a second-term in 2004, carefully projected perceptions of Senator John Kerry, his Democratic opponent, by Republican experts as soft on terrorism contributed to his defeat. It has been seen since the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US homeland that US voters are hostile to any candidate perceived by them as soft towards terrorism.
By no stretch of imagination can one project Mr Obama as soft on terrorism. The record of his administration against Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region and Yemen speaks for itself. The spectacular raid by the Navy Seals into the hide-out of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad that killed him should normally go in favour of Mr Obama in the election campaign.
But the Benghazi incident and conflicting versions of it have given his Republican opponents an opportunity to divert voter attention away from the successes in the Af-Pak region and to focus on the failure of Mr Obama to prevent the infiltration of Al Qaeda elements into Libya.
The politicisation of the Benghazi incident as indicative of the failure of Mr Obama to deal effectively with Al Qaeda in its new areas of operation could provide the Republicans with a stick to beat him with during the election campaign.
In an attempt to pre-empt such politicisation, Mr Obama and his close advisers, including Ms Rice, initially tried to downplay the possibility of the Benghazi attack being an act of terrorism. On September 28, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had to admit that the consulate attack was planned and linked to Al-Qaeda, but stressed that "many unanswered questions" remained.
This volte face has been sought to be exploited by the Republicans to project Mr Obama in negative colours. Mr John McCain, who was Mr Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election campaign, has said that the administration's initial explanation for the attack was flat wrong. He added: "It was either wilful ignorance or abysmal intelligence to think that people come to spontaneous demonstrations with heavy weapons, mortars and the attack goes on for hours."
Republican Vice- presidential nominee Paul Ryan has said: "It's part of a bigger picture of the fact that the Obama foreign policy is unravelling literally before our eyes on our TV screens." There have been demands for the resignation of Ms Rice for allegedly misleading the people. Senior Obama adviser David Plouffe has described as "preposterous and really offensive" any allegation that the Government withheld information on Libya for political reasons.
Till now the indications are that Mr Obama has a lead over his opponent Mr Mitt Romney and that the terrorism issue should not make any difference to the final outcome. The Republicans may not carry conviction with the voters if they try to project Mr Obama as soft or confused in his policies towards terrorism in Libya.
But the fortunes of his campaign could change if it turns out that Mr Obama and his advisers attempted a cover-up of the gravity of the Benghazi attack by projecting it initially as a spontaneous demonstration which was at variance with the characterisation of the incident by State Department experts as a pre-planned military-style attack.
The voters may not react adversely if it turns out to be a case of incompetence, but they may react strongly against him if they believe that an attempt was made to tell them a lie. The fortunes of the campaign could also change if there is another major terrorist strike by Al Qaeda or its affiliates against US nationals and interests anywhere in the world.
Terrorism will continue to be an unpredictable factor in the elections.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies