Romney and Obama campaigns continue to battle over whether public was misled on Libya attack

The Obama and Romney campaigns on Sunday continued to spar over the government’s response to violence in Libya, with Republicans charging that the Obama administration deliberately misled the public and the president’s reelection team accusing Mitt Romney of politicizing an attack that killed four Americans.

“Folks want to know two things: Why wasn’t the security there? And why did the administration try so hard to create the wrong image as to what happened?” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, Romney’s debate practice partner, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “You know, they went out of their way to try to leave the impression this was because of some video. It wasn’t. It was a premeditated terrorist attack that terrible night in Benghazi.”

US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others were killed on Sept. 11 in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. The raid figured prominently in last week’s vice presidential debate and is likely to be a focal point of the second presidential debate on Tuesday, which unlike the first will include foreign policy.

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Five days after the attack, UN Ambassador Susan Rice said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.”

Hours before violence erupted in Benghazi, protesters in Cairo had scaled the wall of an American embassy and replaced a US flag with an Islamic banner in response to an American-produced online video that ridiculed the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

“What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding,” Rice continued. “They came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are readily available in post-revolutionary Libya. And it escalated into a much more violent episode.”

During a congressional hearing last week, State Department officials said they had never characterized the Libya attack as a spontaneous protest gone bad. The former chief security officer for the American Embassy in Libya also testified that the State Department denied a request to extend the deployment of a 16-member military team.

It is unclear whether the team’s presence would have made a difference because it was based in Tripoli, not in Benghazi.

The White House and the president’s reelection team have insisted that the Obama administration made more accurate information available to the public as soon as possible, but Romney and his supporters have alleged intentional obfuscation.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he believes the Obama administration knew within 24 hours that the Benghazi raid was a planned act of terrorism.

“They’re trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, that [in] the Mid East, the wars are receding and al Qaeda has been dismantled, and to admit that our embassy was attacked by al Qaeda operatives ... undercuts that narrative,” Graham said. “They never believed that media would investigate. Congress was out of session, and this caught up with them. I think they’ve been misleading us, but it finally caught up with them.”

On the same program, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is investigating the attack, said the incident has been “treated like a political football.”

“This conspiracy stuff is kind of ridiculous to be honest with you, and I’ve been kind of surprised that they’ve gone to these lengths,” Cummings added. “But, you know, that’s what they do.”