RICHMOND, Va. — Republicans on Friday seized on a debate remark by Vice President Joe Biden that seemed to contradict the Obama administration’s own position about last month’s fatal attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya.
White House officials scrambled to explain why Biden said in the vice presidential debate Thursday that he was unaware that diplomatic personnel wanted more security in Libya before four Americans were killed at the Benghazi consulate. This week, a State Department official told Congress that she had received requests for more security in Benghazi but that she had rejected them because the department wanted to train Libyans to handle the duties. That same day Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the White House and State Department receive the same intelligence information.
Campaigning in Virginia, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused Biden of not being honest with Americans in the debate Thursday with Republican Paul Ryan.
“He’s doubling down on denial, and we need to understand exactly what happened, as opposed to just having him brush this aside,” Romney told more than 3,000 supporters at a rally in suburban Richmond. “When the vice president of the United States directly contradicts the sworn testimony of State Department officials, American citizens have a right to find out what’s going on.”
Carney, peppered with questions on the issue Friday, accused Republicans of politicizing a tragic event to score points in the final weeks of the campaign
“I think the attack by, in what has largely been a political attack by Republicans, and in this case by Congressman Ryan, was to try to suggest that the president and the White House was responsible for assessing security in a diplomatic facility in Benghazi,” he said.
Carney said Biden was speaking for the White House when he said: “Well, we weren’t told they wanted more security again. We did not know they wanted more security again.” Carney said Biden was not speaking for the entire administration, including the State Department, which handles diplomatic security requests.
“There are thousands of diplomatic personnel around the world,” he said. “There are countless facilities around the world. And I am saying that when it comes to the number of personnel who are in place at consulates and embassies and other diplomatic facilities around the world, those decisions are appropriately made at the State Department by security personnel.”
Carney repeatedly declined to say exactly what the White House was told in the days and weeks leading to the Sept. 11 attack, but blamed Republicans for slashing budgets for embassy security.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to answer questions from reporters Friday about Libya, citing ongoing investigations. “To this day, we do not have a complete picture,” she said. “We do not have all the answers. No one in this administration has ever claimed otherwise.”
Clinton described the deadly attack as among “setbacks” that obscured otherwise promising developments in transitional North African nations. A year of major political upheaval in the region, she said, “was never going to drain away reservoirs of radicalism” that came from decades of authoritarian rule. She said it was impossible to prevent every terrorist attack, but that the United States “will not retreat.”
Clinton’s remarks seemed tailored to deflect criticism of the Obama administration that the State Department and the intelligence apparatus had failed to provide adequate security at the Benghazi posts where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in what she and other officials now acknowledge was a pre-planned terrorist attack.
For days, senior officials had painted the attack as in tandem with mob violence that broke out in other parts of the Islamic world that day in response to an anti-Muslim video.
On Friday, the day after the feisty debate between Biden and Ryan, both presidential campaigns declared victory in the hopes that it would push them over the edge in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
Obama spent a rare day behind closed doors in Washington while an enthusiastic Biden, accompanied by his wife, Jill, rallied students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He did not mention Libya but instead spoke about abortion rights, taxes, Afghanistan and Romney’s secretly recorded remarks that the 47 percent of Americans on government assistance are “victims.”
Biden, who was blasted by Republicans for his laughter and facial expressions during the debate, described Ryan as “a gentleman from Wisconsin” but said, “I hardly agree with anything he says.”
In Chesterfield County, outside Richmond, Romney praised Ryan’s composure during the tense faceoff with Biden.
“I think you might agree with me that there was one person on stage last night who was thoughtful and respectful, steady and poised,” he said. “The kind of person you want to turn to in a crisis, and that was the next vice president of the United States, Paul Ryan.”
Anne Maxey, 67, wearing Romney-Ryan pins and red-white-and-blue jewelry, said Biden’s actions at the debate helped confirm her devotion to Ryan.
“I just thought he was silly, just really condescending, combative, rude,” said Maxey, a retired customer service manager from Richmond.
The vice presidential debate dominated the airwaves Friday, but that’s likely to change this weekend as the second presidential debate, slated for Tuesday in New York, gets closer.
Obama leaves Saturday for Williamsburg, Va., to prepare for the debate, while Romney heads to the pivotal state of Ohio for a pair of rallies.
Wise reported from Richmond, Kumar from Washington. Hannah Allam contributed from Washington.