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.