The Romney campaign is smelling blood over the remarks in which Biden protested that there had been no knowledge of a security problem before the assault in which the US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. “We weren’t told they wanted more security, we did not know they wanted more security,” the vice-president said.
In an otherwise bullish and assured performance, Biden’s comments left him exposed to post-debate criticism from conservatives intent on sustaining the past week’s surge of the Romney campaign. The vice-president’s position appeared to be contradicted by evidence presented to the congressional oversight and government reform committee just a day earlier.
Newt Gingrich, a failed candidate for the Republican nomination now backing Romney, predicted on CBS television Friday morning that Biden’s remarks on Benghazi would “haunt them from now until the next debate”.
On Tuesday the committee was presented with a diplomatic cable sent on 2 August by Stevens to the state department in Washington asking for an additional 11 security personnel to be added to the rotation of 24. Though the 11 were to replace temporary security staff who were leaving, Stevens made clear in the cable that violence and terrorism were a threat amid a volatile political landscape.
He wrote: “Due to the level of threat in regards to crime, political violence and terrorism, post feels this is an appropriate number of LES [locally employed staff] security personnel needed to further embassy diplomatic outreach missions. Violent security incidents continue to take place due to the lack of a coherent national Libyan security force and the strength of local militias and large numbers of armed groups.
“Host national security support is lacking and cannot be depended on to provide a safe and secure environment.”
The Republican-controlled committee also heard from two former US security chiefs in Libya who testified that they had found it impossible to get the message across back home that security was a critical problem.
Andrew Wood, former head of a US military team in Libya, told the committee that “the security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there”. He added that the head of US security in the region had pushed for more people “but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with”.
Eric Nordstrom, the former security chief for US diplomats in Libya, said that in his view he had been fighting a losing battle over numbers in which “we couldn’t even keep what we had”. Pointedly, he said that he concluded after contact with state department bosses that “we were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident”.
During the debate, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney‘s running mate, accused the Obama administration of having an “unravelling” foreign policy and pressed Biden hard on Benghazi, saying: “This was Libya, a country we knew had al-Qaida cells. And we did not give our ambassador in Benghazi a marine detachment?”
By protesting “we weren’t told”, Biden may have referred to the White House or the president and his immediate circle, in which case it may be consistent with the revelations about requests to the state department for additional Libyan security. But he will now come under pressure to clarify his position, which could extend the Benghazi controversy for one or more news cycles, causing further headaches for the Obama re-election campaign.
It also leaves him vulnerable to the accusation that the administration was out of touch with what was happening on the ground in Libya. That was seized upon by the Romney campaign, whose senior adviser, Dan Senor, questioned the administration’s grasp of vital national security issues. He said Biden’s statement had pointed to “the larger failures of the administration to be completely transparent about the terrorist attacks in Benghazi and the security situations leading up to the attacks