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Benghazi attack: Time for an honest accounting

Despite this season's election-year politics, the Obama administration needs to acknowledge mistakes at the U.S. consulate in Libya, where four Americans were killed last month in an apparent terrorist attack, and to learn from them. That's the only way to make sure such tragedies aren't repeated in the future, and it's also the only way to move forward if we are to be successful in apprehending the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.

The attack on the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens died, became the subject of heated debate at congressional hearings in Washington this week. Republican lawmakers charged the State Department with covering up intelligence reports warning of an increased terrorist threat during the weeks leading up to Sept. 11. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa went so far as to accuse Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and others of deliberately lying about who was responsible for the attack in order to maintain the administration line that terrorism is in retreat.

Mr. Issa, who seems to see conspiracies everywhere, suggested the initial reports of the incident were part of a coordinated effort by administration officials to mislead the public into believing the attack on the consulate grew out of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Islam movie trailer rather than a carefully planned assault carried out by extremists linked to al-Qaeda. The trailer, whose origins remain murky, sparked protests outside U.S. embassies throughout the Muslim world that were widely reported in the news media. Later intelligence suggested that the consulate attackers seized the opportunity it presented even though there were no demonstrations outside the consulate in Benghazi that day.

But even given the partisan nature of the congressional hearing room debate, it seems unlikely that top administration officials would be so stupid as to believe that a deception on the order of what Republicans imagine could remain secret. After all, the attack on the consulate was witnessed by at least several hundred people whose accounts could be checked against what the State Department was reporting, and a more complete picture of the incident was bound to emerge as news organizations descended on the city.

More likely is that in the initial hours after the attack, officials in Washington were getting confused and conflicting reports about what happened, and they may have passed on information they received before it was fully vetted. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama indicated as much when he admitted that "the information may not have always been right the first time. And as soon as it turns out that we have a fuller picture of what happened, then that was disclosed." If the administration really were trying to cover something up, it did a remarkably poor job of it.

Nevertheless, the hearings did force the State Department to acknowledge that it had denied repeated requests from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli to beef up security around the American compound in Benghazi. The U.S. top security official in Tripoli wanted to retain a 16-member American security detail that was scheduled to leave the country in the weeks before the attack; but even there, the hearings never determined whether it would have made any difference had officials in Washington granted that request. That security detail was based hundreds of miles from Benghazi, and even if it had been able to get to the scene in time, it would have faced what were described as dozens of heavily armed militants who had already breached the compound walls.

In hindsight, it's easy to see that errors of judgment and miscalculations about the risks militants posed to the consulate in Benghazi contributed to the deaths of U.S. citizens there. Even if there was no cover-up, those failures must be acknowledged and corrected. In an election year, that's not easy for an administration that has staked at least part of its claim to remain in office on the success of its foreign policy. There's nothing Mr. Obama can do to stop his critics from trying to make political hay out of the death of Americans, but he can offer the public an honest accounting of how things went so wrong at our consulate in Benghazi and explain what he intends to do so that it never happens again.

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