via Lobe Log

Ahead of tonight’s first 2012 presidential debate, new questions are being raised about the Obama Administration’s policies on counterterrorism abroad — one of the Administration’s main foreign policy record talking points — in light of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi Libya that killed four Americans.

Darrell Issa (R-CA) has called for Secretary of State Clinton to testify at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on how the State Department weighed two bomb attacks on the consulate in the preceding months in light of increased security concerns over US assets in Libya. Republicans are also questioning whether the Administration maintained for several days that the attacks were the result of anti-American riots over a film in order to deflect blame for not seeing a pre-planned attack coming. But according to The Daily Beast/Newsweek, the CIA informed top officials in a briefing three days after the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens — when UN Ambassador Susan Rice was asserting that the attacks were the result of the riots — that “the events were spontaneous.”

That briefing, the report notes, has since been called into question. The Associated Press reports that “[w]ithin hours of last month’s attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, President Barack Obama’s administration received about a dozen intelligence reports suggesting militants connected to al Qaeda were involved,” yet the official messaging remained contradictory. According to the LA Times, the US reportedly began tracking suspected militants in Libya by drone and wire-intercepts in the aftermath of the attack, suggesting that there were concerns in advance over their intentions towards the consulate.

The Associated Press also reports that questions over the attacks — which became a flashpoint in this presidential campaign raised by Republicans are likely to become a venue for criticizing the Administration’s Mideast policies. Politico reports that within the Romney campaign, there is division among his advisors over whether or not to shift some focus from the economy over onto the Benghazi attacks, with campaign manager Stuart Stevens against making such a shift, likely due to the strong backlash against Romney’s earlier comments that were made without knowledge of the four Americans killed in Libya.

But given the internal rifts within the campaign over Stevens’s leadership style, it’s not certain that foreign policy pundits have lost the battle, as they continue to assail Obama on Libya alongside Congressional Republicans demanding an investigation into what intelligence warnings the State Department may have had ahead of September 11, 2012 but failed to act on. The Christian Science Monitor

 suggested that Republicans will be “Jimmy Carterizing Obama” in spite of such internal debate, as those close to the campaign — such as former UN Ambassador and Romney advisor John Bolton — have pulled no punches in their TV appearances.

Of all the prominent Republican critics, only Senator John McCain (R-AZ) — while still demanding the Administration clarify its contradictory remarks about the attacks — has offered a qualified defense of the US’s overall record of intervention Libya, criticizing his interviewers on Fox News last month for suggesting that Libyans generally supported the attackers. In fact, tens of thousands of Benghazi residents demonstrated against Islamist militias soon after the attacks and the government launched a crackdown on suspects and loose weapons in the city.

McCain has also charged the Administration is retreating from the region, but the US intelligence and military presence is set to increase in Libya in the coming weeks now that the intelligence community has fingered several pre-existing Islamist organizations in “chatter” over the attacks.

The personal and controversial nature of much of the criticism over what has been one of the Administration’s most concrete achievements in the Middle East since 2008 seems to be wearing patience thin in the White House.

The Administration’s growing anger over the criticism being aired against it was best exemplified in an expletive-filled exchange between one of Secretary of State Clinton’s top aides and journalist Max Hastings this week. Hastings defended CNN’s controversial use of the late ambassador’s recovered diary in its Libyan reporting last month. The Administration is upset with CNN’s handling of the diary partly because the network tried to keep its use of his diary quiet. But the diary is also embarrassing from a policy standpoint because in it, CNN says the late ambassador was concerned the consulate was being targeted by terrorists.

Unnamed officials now concede that the US had (general) concerns about targeting in the months prior to the attack, such that special forces teams were dispatched to Libya and other Muslim countries to set up rapid-response counterterrorism centers. According to the AP report that quoted these officials, the center in Libya was too new to have offered sufficient advance warning.

There may be further Beltway discussion of Obama’s Middle East record based on a report in the Wall Street Journal detailing how Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood President has been cutting deals with Islamist groups to release batches of their members imprisoned by Hosni Mubarak. The majority of these men — who were tortured by Mubarak’s security services for years — are thought to be political prisoners now too old and bruised to pose any security threats. But several of those freed, the Journal reports, are still active as militant organizers. One of those released was Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, an Egyptian national who is believed to be the main point-man for an al Qaeda core leadership seeking to (re)assert it’s presence in the Maghreb.

Ahmad is reportedly seeking to step up operations in Libya under his own aegis against Libyan and American targets.