Kevin Drum - October 2012

Mitt Romney Wants to "Indict" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 10:32 AM EDT

I'm just curious. Has this passage from the debate last night gotten any attention in conservative circles? It's Mitt Romney explaining what he'd do to Iran aside from tightening sanctions further:

Secondly, I’d take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariahs they are around the world. The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

Can you imagine the howls from the Drudge/Rush/Fox axis if Obama — or any other Democrat — had said that? Their contempt for legal proceedings at The Hague is pretty well known, and the idea that a president of the United States would make such impotent action a centerpiece of his Iran strategy would elicit withering scorn. National Review would splash it on its cover, the Weekly Standard would write a hysterical editorial, Drudge would bring out his siren, and Rush would spend hours harping on it. "The Hague" would become yet another in a long line of conservative pet rocks, to go along with Fast & Furious and Obama's removal of the Churchill bust from the White House.

And yet, I didn't notice any conservatives taking issue with this last night. Am I wrong about that? Or is the hack gap every bit as big as I think it is?

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Debate Reax - 22 October 2012

| Tue Oct. 23, 2012 12:05 AM EDT

Watching Sean Hannity on Fox, I'm sure not feeling much excitement about Romney's performance. He spent five minutes talking to Sarah Palin, and they spent most of the time expressing disappointment about what Romney didn't say. "He just didn't have time to make all the points he needed to," Palin sighed. In the end, they used nearly the entire segment imagining the attacks Romney should have made, rather than defending what he did say. I'm not surprised, since Romney went out of his way to be as un-Foxlike as possible on the warmongering front.

I'm not sure if this will be the line of the night, but Obama was obviously prepared for Romney to repeat his tired talking point that "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917." I guess Romney just couldn't resist. But Obama zinged back immediately:

Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.

Not only is this a good line, but it made Romney look naive and childish, dishing out puerile talking points without really understanding what they mean.

The CBS snap poll of uncommitted voters gave the debate to Obama, 53%-23%. CNN's poll of all debate viewers (which tilts Republican) showed Obama winning 48%-40%. PPP's poll of swing state voters had Obama winning 53%-42%.

For my money, Obama's best moment came after Romney hauled out his "apology tour" trope. The transcript doesn't do it justice. On paper it sounds good, but his delivery made it great. He sounded just a smidge outraged by the whole thing, which was exactly the right tone.

On MSNBC, Steve Schmidt says he thinks Romney passed the "commander-in-chief test." I'm not so sure about that. I don't think this debate hurt him badly, but I sure don't think he looked especially ready to take over America's foreign policy.

Mark Kleiman: "Obama landed some heavy blows, while Romney maundered; in a sane world, Obama would count as the clear winner. In the actual world, more or less a draw. Romney’s capacity not to notice when he’s had a hole blown in him is astounding." I suspect that's a little too pessimistic. I think most viewers probably noticed Romney's inability to articulate any real policy differences with Obama.

Chuck Todd: Republicans "aren't claiming victory, just saying he passed a bar." That sounds about right. Also, "Foreign policy heavyweights were disappointed, didn't feel like he articulated anything."

Andrew Sprung: "As I expected, Romney brought Moderate Mitt to this debate. Practically the first word out of his mouth was "peace" — and throughout, he stressed that he wanted to foster peace....Now, Mitt is the one pushing economic aid in the Muslim world, using sweet persuasion to defuse extremism, fostering a new ally in Syria, rebuilding a relationship with Pakistan. He even had the chutzpah to suggest that he was the one more likely to bring about a Israeli-Palestinian settlement. He portrayed China as a potential partner, implying they'd just brush off being labeled a currency manipulator."

Andrew Sullivan thinks Romney did better than I did: "For Romney, he made no massive mistakes. No Gerald Ford moments. And since the momentum of this race is now his, if now faltering a little, a defeat on points on foreign policy will be an acceptable result. But this was Obama's debate; and he reminded me again of how extraordinarily lucky this country has been to have had him at the helm in this new millennium."

Hilarious line of the night comes from Sean Hannity: "Marines still use bayonets, so maybe somebody should educate the president about how the military works." Seriously? Apparently so. Later on Hannity was crowing about the Marines using horses in Afghanistan too. This just reeks of desperation.

Republicans are spinning hard to make this sound like an Obama debacle, but if you read between the lines, conservative reaction to the debate hasn't been very positive. Romney decided — probably with good reason — that he needed to be extremely restrained tonight, and this meant that he barely mentioned any of the Republican pet rocks that keep the base so riled up. No Churchill bust. No failure to meet with Netanyahu. No attacks over Benghazi. Only a bare mention of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt. This has left conservatives mostly mooning about what Romney should have said and relitigating Benghazi all over again. They think Obama has proven himself the weakest world leader since Neville Chamberlain, and they just don't understand why Romney didn't mop up the floor with him.

The conventional wisdom, such as it is, is that Romney took this tack because he needs to build support among women, and bellicosity doesn't play well with that demographic. Maybe so. We'll see if that works out for him. But it sure has left a long trail of despondent conservatives behind him.

Debate Liveblogging - 22 October 2012

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 9:00 PM EDT

WRAP-UP: It felt to me like Mitt Romney struggled a lot tonight. His problem was simple: he wanted to draw a clear distinction with Obama on foreign policy, but he just couldn't because he didn't want to seem overly bellicose. As a result, he opened up very few serious, substantive areas of disagreement. This reached almost laughable proportions when Bob Schieffer asked him what he'd do if 2014 rolled around and Afghan troops weren't ready to take over their own security:

Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014, and when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals there are on track to do so. We’ve seen progress over the past several years. The surge has been successful and the training program is proceeding apace. There are now a large number of Afghan Security Forces, 350,000 that are ready to step in to provide security, and we’re going to be able to make that transition by the end of 2014.

Transcript here. Romney sounded like a cheerleader for the White House in this exchange. He didn't even hint that Obama had mismanaged anything or done anything wrong. This is especially noteworthy since, in fact, it's vanishingly unlikely that Afghan troops will be ready to take over in 2014.

Likewise, Romney didn't open up any real daylight on Israel. Partly this was because Obama was so pro-Israel that he didn't leave Romney much room on the right. But it was also partly because Romney didn't try. Twice he mentioned that a "nuclear capable" Iran was unacceptable, but that's a term of art that's meaningless to most people unless it's explained. However, Romney was content to leave it out there as a dog whistle, and neither Obama nor Schieffer followed up on it. Later, when Schieffer threw Romney a softball question about supporting Benjamin Netanyahu if he launched an attack on Iran, he punted: "Let’s not go into hypotheticals of that nature," he said. Weak! But obviously Romney wanted to distance himself as much as possible from charges of being just another neocon warmonger.

And that wasn't all. On Syria, Romney basically approved of Obama's policies. On Libya, ditto, and he didn't even try to do any political point scoring over Benghazi. (Either Candy Crowley scared him off or else he reads this blog.) He didn't really have a different policy to offer on Egypt. Or Pakistan. Or drones. Or even Iran, though he tried. And when he got a little closer to home and tried to haul out a normally reliable Republican warhorse — Democrats are weakening our military! — Obama jumped all over it. "You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets." That was a pretty withering reply.

Overall, Obama did a very nice job of defending his foreign policy, sounding well briefed, confident, and commanding. About ten minutes in, he rattled off a five-point plan for dealing with the Middle East, and although I wasn't especially impressed with this, I'll bet a lot of viewers liked it — just the way they liked Romney's crisp five-point economic plan in the first debate. Tonally, Obama did a very good job of sounding just tough enough while also emphasizing soft power capabilities, and doing it in a way that sounded credible. He even managed at times to make Romney sound almost naive about the realities of foreign policy. And when Romney accused him yet again of taking an "apology tour," Obama had one of his best moments of the night:

If we’re going to talk about trips that we’ve taken — when I was a candidate for office, the first trip I took was to visit our troops. And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors. I didn’t attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.

And then I went down to the border town of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me there where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms. And I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids. Which is why as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles.

So that’s how I’ve used my travels, when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region. And the central question at this point is going to be: Who is going to be credible to all parties involved? And they can look at my track record, whether it’s Iran sanctions, whether it’s dealing with counterterrorism, whether it’s supporting democracy, whether it’s supporting women’s rights, whether it’s supporting religious minorities.

Romney looked almost pained while Obama was saying this, like a kid caught telling a whopper and getting dressed down in front of the whole class.

Romney's main goal tonight was pretty transparent: not to sound like a warmonger. He probably succeeded in that, but at the price of turning every attack into mush and validating nearly everything Obama said. It just didn't seem like a good night for him. I'd give him a C+ and Obama an A-.


Tonight's debate liveblogging is brought to you by an Android tablet. Barely. The Mother Jones back end really, really doesn't want me to do this. But let's try it for a while just for fun. Let the games begin....

7:34 - And that's it.

7:33 - Romney's closing statement is basically a marketing brochure for Moderate Mitt.

7:31 - Romney wants peace. Really. Then he's back to domestic economic policy. He gave foreign policy even less of a nod than Obama did.

7:30 - Closing statements! Romney wants to take us back to a foreign policy that's "wrong and reckless." And that's a wrap on foreign policy. Now we're back to domestic economic policy. Good foreceful wrap-up.

7:29 - Romney loves teachers again. And yet again. Schieffer: "I think we all love teachers."

7:27 - Romney, as usual, is good when he criticizes Obama's economic performance over past four years. Sounds a little tired, though.

7:25 - Obama: "You keep on trying to airbrush history." Good line, but I'm still not sure that arguing about Detroit is worthwhile. I guess it's all about Ohio.

7:24 - Yes, let's have another argument about the Detroit bankruptcy. Please.

7:22 - Obama makes point that Chinese currency has strengthened lately. True. Not sure anyone will really understand the point, though. Would have worked better if Obama had explained a bit more and taken credit for it.

7:21 - Obama: "Well, Governor Romney’s right, you are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas." Ouch.

7:19 - Romney blathering on about China being a currency manipulator. See Krugman on this. Romney is convinced that nothing he does will invite any retaliation. Uh huh.

7:18 - Romney just gratuitously announces that the world's greatest threat is a nuclear Iran. Where did that come from?

7:17 - Romney probably right on the merits of the tire tariffs. But probably wrong on the politics.

7:16 - Obama talking about tough he's been on China. Finally, a chance for Romney to be even tougher. Will he take it?

7:14 - Schieffer is certainly keeping to his schedule. No missing pods for him.

7:11 - Ah, a question about drones. Romney's answer is unsurprising: he's all in favor of using them. Zero daylight between him and Obama. Somewhere Glenn Greenwald is tearing his hair out.

7:10 - Romney: "I don’t blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained." Again, Romney sounds like he's in the spin room defending Obama.

7:04 - WTF? Romney on Afghanistan sounds like he's Obama's Secretary of Defense. Everything is working great, our boys will be home by 2014. Wow.

7:01 - Obama hitting Romney hard tonight. Generally, though, both candidates are less aggressive toward each other than in second debate.

9:59 - Would you support Israel if they bombed Iran? Romney won't answer a hypothetical. This is Moderate2 Mitt. What will Bill Kristol think?

9:57 - Obama hitting it out of the park responding to Romney's apology tour nonsense.

9:54 - Romney trying to sound tougher than Obama while offering nothing that Obama hasn't done. One exception (maybe) is that he wouldn't allow Iran to achieve "nuclear capability." Will Schieffer follow up?

9:53 - Apology tour! Take a drink!

9:53 - Romney: " I think [Iran] looked at that and saw weakness." This is really tired stuff.

9:52 - Obama making point that sanctions only work if everyone agrees to them. This is an important thing to get across. Voters need to understand just how successful and persistent he's been on Iran.

9:51 - Overall, we're mostly seeing Moderate Mitt tonight. He sure sounds like he basically supports everything Obama has done on Iran.

9:50 - Did Romney just say he'd indict Ahmadinejad at the Hague?

9:48 - Romney won't allow a "nuclear capable" Iran. Will Schieffer follow up to make clear what this means?

9:47 - Obama is claiming that the foreign policy differences between him and Romney are pretty small. That's true, actually.

9:45 - Should we say that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States? Obama: "I will stand with Israel if they are attacked." Not formally an answer, but close enough.

9:44 - Obama: "We also have fewer horses and bayonets." Pretty good line. Not sure this exchange can have a winner, though.

9:43 - Romney finally willing to talk about military, but hauls out nonsense about our Navy being smaller than anytime in the past century. Sheesh.

9:42 - Not yet. Romney back on balancing the budget.

9:41 - Finally back on the military budget. Will Romney now be willing to actually talk about the military?

9:40 - Now Obama is attacking Romney's tax plan.

9:39 - Bob Schieffer completely unable to get Romney back onto foreign policy.

9:34 - Romney surely wins an award for inserting teachers union bashing in a foreign policy debate.

9:33 - Oh for God's sake. Can we please stop talking about our domestic economic plans on the pretext that this is really a foreign policy issue?

9:27 - Romney just attacked "sequestration" without explaining what it is. That's how you lose your audience.

9:22 - Romney has a whole lot of goals for Syria but precisely no plans for achieving them.

9:19 - Romney wants to form a "council" in Syria? He's otherwise being very non-belligerent on Syria.

9:17 - So far, Obama pandering to Israel more than Romney.

9:11 - Obama really going after Romney's inconsistencies. Not sure he really made the point convincingly.

9:10 - Romney has now mentioned Mali twice. Is this the latest Republican thing?

9:08 - Romney: "My strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys." Okey dokey.

9:05 - Kinda looks like Moderate Mitt so far. But the night is young.

9:00 - So which Mitt will we get tonight? "Red line" Mitt or Moderate Mitt? Or something in between?

Scientists Convicted of Not Predicting Earthquake

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 6:41 PM EDT

The infamous L'Aquila earthquake trial is over, and it turns out that in Italy you can be convicted of manslaughter for not predicting an earthquake:

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila. A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes. It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict in the trial, which had begun in September 2011.

As bad as this sounds, it's actually even worse. Prior to the L'Aquila quake, there had been a series of small tremors, prompting a local lab technician to issue several incorrect predictions of a large earthquake on Italian television. Residents were nervous, so a committee of seismologists was convened to assess the risk of a bigger quake. Here's what they concluded:

The minutes of the 31 March meeting [] reveal that at no point did any of the scientists say that there was "no danger" of a big quake. "A major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out," Boschi said. Selvaggi is quoted as saying that "in recent times some recent earthquakes have been preceded by minor shocks days or weeks beforehand, but on the other hand many seismic swarms did not result in a major event". Eva added that "because L'Aquila is in a high-risk zone it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake". Summing up the meeting, Barberi said, "there is no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock". All the participants agreed that buildings in the area should be monitored urgently, to assess their capacity to sustain a major shock.

So what's the conviction based on? This:

The prosecution has focused on a statement made at the press conference by accused committee member Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then deputy technical head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency. "The scientific community tells me there is no danger," he said at the time, "because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable."

Many seismologists — including one of the accused, Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome — have since criticized the statement as scientifically unfounded. The statement does not appear in the minutes of the committee meeting itself, and the accused seismologists say they cannot be blamed for it. De Bernardinis's advocate insists that his client merely summarized what the scientists had told him. The prosecutor claims that because none of the other committee members immediately corrected De Bernardinis, they are all equally culpable.

Even if you think De Bernardinis was culpable in some way, it's beyond belief that six scientists were convicted merely for not immediately disagreeing with him. This is a sad day in Italian justice, and it's going to be a long time before any qualified scientist is willing to say anything ever again about earthquake safety.

Smart Kids Have All the Fun

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 6:10 PM EDT

Here's a headline from Sarah Kliff in the Washington Post today:

Sorry, nerds: Popular kids earn more in the long run

This is a description of a study that followed high school seniors from the class of 1957 and, among other things, looked at whether popularity correlated with later success in life. And it did. Students were all asked to name their three best friends, and those who were named most often ended up earning more as adults. This isn't surprising. But it's worth noting that smart kids didn't actually do poorly. Here's what the study says:

We find a tendency for high-IQ students to nominate more friends and to be popular in turn, suggesting that high ability students might be more attractive as peers and better understand the opportunities arising from social interactions.

Social scientists have known for a long time that the usual stereotype of smart kids as socially maladjusted outcasts is wrong. Some of them are, but then again, so are some average kids. Popularity is independent of smarts, and on average, it turns out that smart kids are actually a little more sociable than the mean. This new study confirms that.

How Many Republicans Voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Act?

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 1:23 PM EDT

Mitt Romney, displaying the political courage we've come to expect from him, has declined to take a public stand on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. So does that mean we're doomed to simply guess what he thinks? Steve Benen says no: "There's ample evidence that the Romney campaign and its surrogates strongly oppose the pay-equity bill."

Steve runs down the recent evidence, but can I just add the obvious? We actually held a vote on this bill in 2009. A grand total of eight Republicans out of 219 voted in favor. Romney may not feel like admitting it during an election in which he needs women to vote for him, but Steve is right: I think we have a pretty good idea of exactly what he and his fellow Republicans think about this.

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The High-Tech Lynching of Susan Rice

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 12:37 PM EDT

One of the key scapegoats of the right-wing outrage machine in the wake of last month's assault in Benghazi has been UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Why? Because four days after the attacks, she taped interviews with several Sunday talk shows in which she falsely suggested that the attacks had been inspired by the "Innocence of Muslims" YouTube video. This charge has since been repeated 24/7 on Fox News and picked up over and over by mainstream news outlets as well.

It's outrageous, all right, but not because Rice really did anything wrong. She didn't. At this point, the known facts are pretty simple:

  • The CIA's collective judgment on Saturday the 15th, when Rice taped her interviews, was that the protests earlier in the week in Cairo — which had been inspired by the video — had also inspired protests in Benghazi. Later, extremist elements hijacked those protests to storm the consulate. The CIA subsequently backed off its belief that there had been protests in Benghazi, but that only happened later. On Saturday, the CIA told Rice there had been protests, and that's what she said on TV.
  • The evidence to this day suggests that, in fact, the YouTube video did play a role in the attacks. It's simply not true that Rice invented or exaggerated about that.
  • Rice was, in fact, properly cautious in her TV appearances. The transcripts here are crystal clear. On Face the Nation, for example, she carefully told Bob Schieffer that she couldn't yet offer any "definitive conclusions," but that "based on the best information we have to date" it appeared that there had been a spontaneous protest in Benghazi "as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where [...] there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video." She then immediately added: "But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent." When Schieffer pressed her on whether the attack had been preplanned, or whether al-Qaeda was involved, she said directly that we simply didn't know yet.

So how is it that mainstream reporters have managed to repeat the right-wing attacks on Rice so endlessly and without any apparent pushback? Bob Somerby suggests that four factors allowed it to happen:

  • Death by lack of certainty. The press wants a simple story and just won't accept statements of uncertainty at face value.
  • Death by complexity. Rice told a multi-part story that the press insisted on simplifying into submission. 
  • Death by submission to power. The right wing outrage machine yelled loudly about Rice's perfidy, and the rest of the press followed along.
  • Death by liberal silence. Liberals did nothing to fight back. Rice was on her own.

Susan Rice has been made into a bizarre caricature of herself. The transcripts of what she said are easily available, and by now it's plainly obvious that her comments were careful, considered, and accurately represented the collective assessment of American intelligence at the time she offered them. It's time to stop the lynching.

Tonight We Will See the Foreign Policy Version of Moderate Mitt

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 11:10 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore examines Mitt Romney's options in the foreign policy debate tonight:

Consider the advice offered to Romney for tonight's debate by the New York Times' Bill Keller. Here are the headlines: (1) Go easy on Benghazi; (2) Say Something nice About the Palestinians; (3) Extend a hand to Mohamed Morsi; (4) Concede that the war in Iraq was a mistake; (5) Don't rush into Syria; (6) Open the door to a deal with Iran; (7) Apply some Bain rigor to defense; and (8) Cool it on China.

....But how does a presidential candidate who has repeatedly and heatedly and redundantly defined America's interests in the Middle East as identical with those of Bibi Netanyahu do (2) and (6)? How does the nominee of a party whose base is for the most part quite happy with the idea of American foreign policy being organized around a straight out war against Islam going to do (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6)? Can a candidate who's been running around Hampton Roads telling voters that they'll all starve if the defense budget is allowed to decline an iota suddenly get Bain-ish on Pentagon spending?

Ed, Ed, Ed: where has your right and proper cynicism gone? Of course Romney will do most of these things. How? Why, he'll just open his mouth and say the words. He'll be careful not to phrase any of this stuff in the form of concrete promises, but Romney is obviously dedicated to his Moderate Mitt persona when he's on a national stage, and I don't doubt that he'll find a way to extend this tonight. For the record, I don't think he'll go as far as #4, and I don't think he needs to rein in his instincts on #8, which is a fairly popular position. But the rest of them? With the proper nuances and caveats, none of them should cause him a problem. I'm not quite sure what strategy he'll pursue on Benghazi (I suspect that cooling it would be a good idea, but I'm hardly 100% sure of that), but that's the only question mark. The rest of this stuff is easy to fudge.

The Benghazi Controversy, Explained

| Sat Oct. 20, 2012 12:48 PM EDT
The caskets of US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith, and security officers Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty are escorted through an honor cordon during a transfer ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on Sept. 14, 2012.

The reporting on what we know about the Benghazi attacks on September 11 just gets more and more interesting. Let's do a quick Q&A:

Why was President Obama initially unwilling to call it an act of terror?

He wasn't. The day after the attack, on September 12, he gave a Rose Garden speech in which he said, in reference to the assault, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation." At campaign stops that day and the next, he again referred to the Benghazi assault as "an act of terror." A McClatchy report sums up the evidence: "In the first 48 hours after the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya, senior Obama administration officials strongly alluded to a terrorist assault and repeatedly declined to link it to an anti-Muslim video that drew protests elsewhere in the region, transcripts of briefings show."

A day after the attacks, the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington that there were eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants. Why didn't Obama administration officials say so?

They did. Hillary Clinton, for one, referred to it as an attack "by a small and savage group."

Okay, but that McClatchy report quoted above also says that a few days after the attacks administration officials started putting more emphasis on the "Innocence of Muslims" video. Why? It had nothing to do with the Benghazi attacks.

That's not what locals said. As David Kirkpatrick reports: "To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video…The fighters said at the time that they were moved to act because of the video, which had first gained attention across the region after a protest in Egypt that day."

So the video might have played a role. But why did UN ambassador Susan Rice put the video front and center in her Sunday morning appearances a week after the attacks?

She didn't, really. On Face the Nation, she said the "best information" at that moment suggested that Benghazi began "as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where […] there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video." She then immediately added: "But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent."

Still, why even mention the video? By that point, wasn't it clear that the real cause of the attacks lay elsewhere?

Not really. We now know that the CIA still believed the video was partly to blame for the violence. David Ignatius reports that a set of "talking points" prepared by the CIA on September 15, the day Rice taped her TV appearances, "support her description of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate as a reaction to Arab anger about an anti-Muslim video prepared in the United States. According to the CIA account, 'The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.'"

Fine. But why did Rice suggest that the attacks came after a "spontaneous" protest at the Benghazi consulate? There was no protest.

True, but Rice didn't know that at the time because the CIA talking points still referred to "demonstrations" that had been inspired by the protests in Cairo. As David Martin reported: "Over that same weekend, US intelligence began to uncover evidence that there had not been a protest outside the consulate. That new intelligence did not get to Rice before she appeared on the Sunday talk shows, making her the target of Republican accusations the administration was trying to cover up the terrorist attack."

But why did anyone think there was anything "spontaneous" about this in the first place? In fact, the assault on the consulate was preplanned by "Al Qaeda elements," as Libyan President Mohammed Magarief said, wasn't it?

No. The LA Times reports that Magarief was mistaken: "The assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi last month appears to have been an opportunistic attack rather than a long-planned operation, and intelligence agencies have found no evidence that it was ordered by Al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials and witnesses interviewed in Libya…The attack was 'carried out following a minimum amount of planning,' said a U.S. intelligence official…A second U.S. official added, 'There isn't any intelligence that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance.' Most of the evidence so far suggests that 'the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo' earlier that day, the official said."

Still, the Obama administration was negligent in refusing a stream of requests from American diplomats in Libya to provide more security, wasn't it?

That's possible. However, increased security probably wouldn't have changed anything. As the New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago, "The requests were denied, but they were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the American Embassy in Tripoli—not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away."

Bottom line: There were conflicting reports on the ground, and that was reflected in conflicting and sometimes confused reports from the White House. I don't think anyone would pretend that the Obama's administration's response to Benghazi was anywhere near ideal. Nevertheless, the fact is that their statements were usually properly cautious; the YouTube video really did play a role; the attack was opportunistic, not preplanned; and it doesn't appear to have had any serious connection with Al Qaeda. It's true that it took about 10 days for all this to really shake out, but let's be honest: 10 days isn't all that long to figure out what really happened during a violent and chaotic attack halfway around the world. I get that it's a nice opportunity for Republicans to score some political points in the runup to an election, but really, there's not much there there.

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 October 2012

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 3:00 PM EDT

Around here, we're not selfish about birthdays. I get what's inside the box, Domino gets the box itself. As you can see, everyone is pretty contented with this arrangement.

In other news, a new catacomb has been discovered in Rome. By a cat: "Curti and a friend were following the cat at 10pm on Tuesday when it scampered towards a low tufa rock cliff close to his home near Via di Pietralata in a residential area of the city. 'The cat managed to get into a grotto and we followed the sound of its miaowing,' he said. Inside the small opening in the cliff the two men found themselves surrounded by niches dug into the rock similar to those used by the Romans to hold funeral urns, while what appeared to be human bones littered the floor."

Sure, dogs might save you if your house catches on fire. Big deal. Cats are helping us reclaim the lost relics of Western civilization. Advantage: cats.