ON Sept. 11, a band of heavily armed men stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, overwhelmed a small security force and killed four men, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
At first, the White House said the attack was spontaneous, an outgrowth of a demonstration against a video that ridiculed the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. But day by day, top U.S. officials have come to suggest publicly that it was much more. Officials now say the embassy siege might have been a well-planned attack by al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the highest-ranking administration official to link an al-Qaida franchise in North Africa to the attack.
A scant five weeks before a presidential election, the evolving account of what happened in Benghazi has the White House looking defensive and Republicans seeing opportunity. The Obama campaign is sensitive to questions of whether there was a security lapse or intelligence failure. Some Republican leaders have seized on the administration's changing account to suggest that the administration isn't coming clean on what it knows about the attack and the attackers.
No doubt U.S. intelligence on this attack is growing and evolving. The new government in Libya has rounded up dozens of suspects for interrogation and looks to be fully cooperating with U.S. authorities.
Republicans run the risk of looking like they're capitalizing on tragedy. But they're right on one point: The White House owes Americans a full accounting of what happened and who was responsible. White House officials need to be forthcoming about what they know and what is still to be determined.
Remember a central lesson from the 9/11 Commission report: The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were possible partly because the United States, under President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush, never fully grasped the danger posed by al-Qaida.
The muted American response to the February 1993 truck bomb attack against the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya invited more of the same.
The anti-terror efforts of U.S agencies “were sometimes energetic and sometimes effective,” the report said. “But the United States did not, before 9/11, adopt as a clear strategic objective the elimination of al-Qaida.”
That's how Osama bin Laden figured he and his fellow terrorists could kill Americans without suffering any consequences.
The story has been different since the 2001 attacks. American resolve to defeat al-Qaida has produced an impressive string of now-deceased al-Qaida leaders who learned how tenacious and ingenious a foe they had aroused. Any countries that harbor al-Qaida or its sympathizers also know that America's anti-terror war doesn't stop at their borders. The Obama administration has been strong in its efforts.
Al-Qaida has lost its safe base of operations and many of its top leaders, but it remains dangerous, through sympathizers and affiliates. The key questions about the attack in Libya: Was a U.S. ambassador murdered by an al-Qaida affiliate and, if so, how will the U.S. respond?
It's been a while since we wrote the words war on terror. That's a phrase repeated so often that for some Americans it has lost its power.
Call it what you will, America remains at war with al-Qaida and with terrorists across the globe. This isn't a war that ends neatly with a decisive battle or a strategic withdrawal. Al-Qaida and its ilk are patient. Terrorists probe for vulnerabilities, exploit opportunities to kill Americans. Those who plotted and carried out this fierce attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi will be waiting and watching. They may hope for a slackening of American resolve. Let them be disappointed.
— Chicago Tribune