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Tonight's presidential debate is focused on domestic issues, especially the economy. But Mitt Romney is also ramping up his criticism of President Obama's foreign policy, and that's where we begin this hour. Romney's move comes three weeks after the attack in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, Republicans see an opening in the administration's shifting account of how that tragedy unfolded.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Administration officials initially characterized the September 11 attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues as a violent reaction to an anti-Muslim movie, similar to the protest at the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Egypt. President Obama cited the movie in denouncing the attack from the White House Rose Garden the following morning.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None.
HORSLEY: By pointing to the movie as a catalyst, the administration suggested the attack was spontaneous, not preplanned, a distinction that could be important in assessing the government's performance. A spontaneous mob, like an earthquake, can be deadly, but largely unforeseeable, whereas a preplanned attack could be viewed more like a hurricane that the government should have seen coming. Later that week, White House Spokesman Jay Carney shot down the suggestion that the administration had overlooked warning signs.
JAMES CARNEY: We were not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent.
HORSLEY: By the following Sunday, a subtle shift began. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice told CBS what began as a spontaneous demonstration against the movie became a cover for something more sinister.
SUSAN RICE: It looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort and that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.
HORSLEY: Rice cautioned no conclusion should be drawn before an investigation was complete. But she continued to downplay the idea of a coordinated attack.
RICE: We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.
HORSLEY: Libya's president argued otherwise that very day, saying the style of the attack and the timing on September 11 pointed to a coordinated act of terrorism. By the following Wednesday, eight days after the attack, Matthew Olsen, who directs the National Counterterrorism Center, was also using the T word. He told Congress the killings in Benghazi were a terrorist attack.
MATTHEW OLSEN: We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaida or al-Qaida's affiliates.
HORSLEY: The intelligence community had indications of that involvement within days of the attack, but Olsen still said there was no specific evidence of advanced planning. Congressional Republicans have launched their own investigation. Citing unnamed government officials, they say the State Department turned down repeated requests for extra security in Benghazi despite previous attacks.
The GOP sees an opening here to tarnish Mr. Obama's foreign policy shine, while rehabilitating Mitt Romney, whose initial response to the Libyan attack was criticized even by his fellow Republicans. Romney plans to give a speech on foreign policy in the near future, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, is also on the offensive.
PAUL RYAN: Turn on the TV and it's not - it reminds you of 1979 Tehran, but they're burning our flags in capitals all around the world. They're storming our embassies.
HORSLEY: White House Spokesman Carney insists the administration has shared the best intelligence available every step of the way, and he calls it unfortunate that Republicans have tried to turn the attack into a partisan issue.
It's not clear what effect any of this may have on an election still dominated by economic concerns. But to whatever fog of war may have clouded the events in Benghazi, you can now add the deliberate fog of politics. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.