WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans on Sunday kept the heat on President Barack Obama over the September 11 killing of four Americans in Libya, with a senior senator saying the attack supported the Romney campaign’s claim that Obama’s foreign policy is “unraveling.”
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has seized on the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, to try to dent Obama’s foreign policy credibility ahead of the November 6 election.
Questions about what happened at the Benghazi mission surfaced in Thursday’s vice presidential debate, where Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan decried the “unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.” They look set to intensify at the next presidential debate, on Tuesday in New York.
“Either they are misleading the American people, or they are incredibly incompetent,” Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The White House initially said the violence was an impromptu reaction by Muslims upset at a video made in California that insulted the Prophet Mohammed. Days later, the administration publicly called it a terrorist attack on the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Graham said the Obama administration’s early statements on the attack, in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed, were aimed at hiding inconvenient facts in order to uphold a rosy “narrative” of success in Libya and in the wider fight against al Qaeda.
“To admit that the embassy was attacked by al Qaeda operatives, and Libya - leading from behind - didn’t work I think undercuts that narrative,” he said.
“Bin Laden may be dead. Al Qaeda is alive and they’re counter-attacking throughout the entire region,” said Graham. “And the truth is the foreign policy choices of President Obama is allowing the region to become unraveled.”
DEMOCRAT SEES “WITCH HUNT”
Graham’s salvo came after Romney accused Vice President Joe Biden on Friday of contradicting the testimony two days earlier of U.S. State Department officials on Libya.
Romney jumped on comments that Biden made on Thursday night during a debate with Ryan.
When asked whether the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, had asked for more security ahead of the attack, Biden said: “Well, we weren’t told they wanted more security again. We did not know they wanted more security again.”
Two State Department officials gave sworn testimony on Wednesday at a congressional hearing in Washington saying they had repeatedly requested beefed-up security for the compound.
“He’s doubling down on denial,” Romney told a campaign rally in Richmond on Friday.
The White House defended Biden on Friday, saying he had been speaking only for himself and Obama and not for other officials.
Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who is helping Romney prepare for the next presidential debate on Tuesday by playing Obama, said Americans “deserve an explanation” on Benghazi.
“Folks want to know two things, why wasn’t the security there, and why did the administration try so hard to create the wrong image as to what happened, they went out of their way to leave the impression it was because of some video, it wasn‘t,” Portman told ABC’s “This Week.”
Democratic U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland defended the administration’s handling of the attacks and accused Republicans of staging a witch hunt.
“This conspiracy stuff is kind of ridiculous to be honest with you, and I’ve been kind of surprised that they’ve gone to these lengths. But, you know, that’s what they do,” he told “Face the Nation.”
“It is turning into a witch hunt and we can do better, we really can,” added Cummings.
(This story is corrected with spelling of Senator Graham’s first name, 4th paragraph)
Reporting By Paul Eckert, Alister Bull and Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Cynthia Osterman