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Obama Downplaying Al-Qaeda Risk, Republican Lawmakers Say

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the White House has been reluctant to say the attack was carried out by militias associated with al-Qaeda because that “undercuts the narrative.” Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Raising the political ante on the attack on the U.S. embassy compound in Libya, congressional Republicans say President Barack Obama’s administration has sought to play down the risk of a resurgent al-Qaeda in the Middle East.

The Obama administration was “trying to sell a narrative about the Mideast that the wars are receding and that al-Qaeda was being defeated” until the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said today on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

He said the White House has been reluctant to say the attack was carried out by militias associated with al-Qaeda because that “undercuts the narrative.”

U.S. intelligence officials say they are investigating whether the Libyan militia group suspected of carrying out the assault, Ansar al-Sharia, has operational ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a loose-knit extremist group that’s made inroads in Niger, Mali, and other North African nations.

Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed greater certainty. The “coordinated attack” that killed Stevens was “by an al-Qaeda-associated militia,” he said.

Intelligence officials “on the ground told me that in 24 hours they communicated to Washington that this was a terrorist attack,” Graham told CBS, and still, top U.S. officials including the president said the incident was spurred by protests arising out of an anti-Islamic video.

House Hearing

The Obama administration’s response to the embassy attack has become a contentious election issue, with Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticizing the president for not providing adequate security to Americans in Libya. At a hearing on Oct. 11, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee challenged the U.S. State Department’s version of events.

Representative Darryl Issa, the California Republican who chairs the committee, said on the CBS show that the Libya attack was Obama’s “mission-accomplished moment,” a reference to when President George W. Bush was criticized for prematurely declaring victory in Iraq.

Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight committee, said Issa and the Republicans were reaching conclusions before the investigation was complete.

“We don’t have substantial evidence yet” on exactly what transpired on Sept. 11, Cummings said on CBS. “There’s a lot to be answered. The FBI investigation is going on and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has appointed a review board.”

Republicans are making allegations “based on a campaign schedule,” Maryland’s Cummings said. “I don’t think our men who were killed deserve this.”

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