WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans lashed out at President Barack Obama and senior administration officials over their evolving description of the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, a late campaign-season broadside challenging the veracity and leadership of an incumbent on the upswing.
Desperate to reverse the apparent trajectory of the White House race, Republicans sense a political opportunity in Obama's reluctance to utter the words "terrorist attack" as well as the varying explanations emerging from the administration about the assault in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Talk of Watergate-style scandal, stonewalling and cover-up echoed in the GOP ranks on Thursday, from the head of the party to members of Congress to Mitt Romney's campaign staff. This full-throated criticism comes five days before the first debate between Obama and Romney, with Republicans determined to cast the president as dishonest and ineffectual on both foreign and domestic policy.
"Amid Middle East turmoil and six weeks before the election, President Obama refuses to have an honest conversation with the American people," Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, wrote in an article for the website Real Clear Politics. "The country deserves honesty, not obfuscation, from our president."
Republicans say the administration has been slow to call the assault a terrorist attack and has criticized its initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the crude anti-Islam video that touched off demonstrations across the Middle East.
Since then, it has become clear that the Benghazi assault was distinct from the mobs that burned American flags and protested what they considered the blasphemy in the movie, but didn't attack U.S. personnel. Republicans have also suggested that the administration had intelligence suggesting the deadly attack might happen and ignored it.
"I think it's pretty clear that they haven't wanted to level with the American people. We expect candor from the president and transparency," Romney told Fox News this week.
The White House and Democrats accused the GOP of politicizing national security, with officials specifically mentioning Romney's quick swipe at Obama as an extremist sympathizer as the crisis was still unfolding in North Africa around Sept. 11.
"The Republican approach is to shoot first and ask questions later," Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. "The administration wants to do an investigation and be as accurate as possible. That's the difference between partisan politics and trying to govern."
Democrats also used the criticism to recall the former Massachusetts governor's missteps during his summertime overseas trip and his omission in his prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention of any mention of U.S. military forces fighting in Afghanistan.
"Every time Mitt Romney has attempted to dip his toe into foreign policy quarters, it's been an unmitigated disaster," Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki said aboard Air Force One.
National security has provided few political openings for Romney and the GOP as Obama has shed the Democrats' past reputation for weakness by ordering the successful raid that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and undercut al-Qaida. An Associated Press-GfK poll earlier this month found Obama with an edge over Romney on who Americans think can do a better job of protecting the country, 51 percent to 40 percent.
The economy and jobs are the dominant issues in the election, with few voters likely to cast their ballots based on events in Libya or conflicts overseas. Underscoring the general weariness after more than 10 years of war, some of the fiercest GOP defense hawks in Congress have suggested the United States withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, an even bolder step than Obama.
But the administration has struggled to present a coherent description of the assault in Libya, prompting questions from Republicans and Democrats about whether the United States had prior intelligence, whether the attack was planned and whether security was sufficient.
In that same AP poll, Americans approved of Obama's handling of Libya by just 45-41 percent. The poll was conducted within days of the assault.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday called it a terrorist attack.
"What terrorists were involved I think still remains to be determined by the investigation," he told reporters at the Pentagon. "But it clearly was a group of terrorists who conducted that attack."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and White House press secretary Jay Carney called the violence a terrorist attack last week. But Obama has declined several chances to call the incident a terrorist attack. He said last week that extremists used an anti-Islam video as an excuse to assault U.S. interests.
And just five days after the attack, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the attack was a spontaneous reaction to the video. Her assessment was at odds with Libya's interim President Mohammed el-Megarif, who said there was no doubt the perpetrators had predetermined the date of the assault. Panetta said Thursday it was a "planned attack."
The FBI is investigating, but the apparent contradictions have prompted demands for information from Congress and a flurry of scathing letters to the administration.
So far, U.S. intelligence has indicated that heavily armed extremists numbering 50 or more attacked the consulate, relying on gun trucks for added firepower. They established a perimeter, limiting access to the compound. A first wave of attacks forced the Americans to flee to a fallback building, where a second group of extremists attacked with mortar fire. Stevens died of apparent smoke inhalation when he was caught inside one of the consulate buildings, which had been set on fire.
Officials have not singled out one responsible group, but have focused their attention on Ansar al-Shariah, a Libyan militant group led by a former detainee at the U.S. military-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that there has been a "thread of intelligence reporting" about groups in eastern Libya trying to coalesce, but no specific threat to the consulate.
Since the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi last year, militias, weapons and terrorists are common in Libya.
"It was just unbelievable that Ambassador Rice and Secretary Clinton and the White House spokesman and others would say that there was no evidence — that this was a spontaneous attack, yet they say, 'come on, honey, bring your mortars, we're going to a spontaneous demonstration,'" Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on CBS' "This Morning."
McCain, who called the administration's statements "disgraceful," joined three other Republican senators this week in a letter to Rice pressing her on her "troubling statements that are inconsistent with the facts."
Eight Republicans who head House committees sent a letter to Obama criticizing a "pre-9/11 mindset" of "treating an act of war solely as a criminal matter." They said they would return to Washington from their nearly two-month recess for briefings beyond the back-to-back sessions Clinton and others held last week.
Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., have asked for communications between the State Department and the U.S. mission in Libya leading up to the attacks.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., has written the State Department's Thomas Nides asking him to provide the panel with a detailed accounting of the attacks on U.S. missions in Libya, Egypt and Yemen on Sept. 11, information on security and whether there was any prior intelligence.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the panel, said the purpose of this letter is a bipartisan effort to get information.
"I do think it is legitimate and appropriate to ask questions," Coons said in an interview. "Some have sadly overreached and clearly are politicizing this incident."
Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington and Steve Peoples in Springfield, Va., contributed to this report.