WASHINGTON -- A senior Republican senator on Sunday accused President Barack Obama's aides of deliberately covering up the details of the Sept. 11 attack in Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador so that voters wouldn't question Obama's handling of the war on terror.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a long-time point man for the Republicans on national security issues, said he believes the administration knew within 24 hours of the assault that it was a coordinated militia attack and was not tied to other anti-U.S. protests across the Middle East. According to Graham, the administration suggested otherwise so voters wouldn't think al-Qaida remained a threat.
"They're trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, that (the) wars are receding and that al-Qaida has been dismantled," said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, in an interview on CBS television's "Face the Nation."
"And to admit that our embassy was attacked by al-Qaida operatives ... I think undercuts that narrative," he added.
It was an exceptionally pointed allegation on what has become a major campaign issue. The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens, has raised questions about whether the State Department denied its embassy staff adequate security to save money and why the White House was slow to label the assault a "terrorist attack."
Democrats shrugged off the allegations.
"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. But you know that's what they do," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is investigating the incident.
The White House declined Sunday to comment on Graham's allegations. It has said previously that the investigation continues and that officials have relied on information about the attack as it became available.
Five days after the attack, Susan Rice, the US. Ambassador to the United Nations, described the violence as spontaneous and said the administration believed extremists had "hijacked" an anti-U.S. protest over a video ridiculing Islam that was produced in the U.S. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also had given credence to the notion that the attack was related to protests.
A CIA memo obtained by The Associated Press cited initial intelligence that supported the assertion. But during last week's congressional hearing on the matter, the State Department said it had never concluded that the consulate attack stemmed from protests, prompting lawmakers to question why the administration used the explanation for more than a week.
Graham said Sunday that he had been told by intelligence officials in Libya that "within 24 hours they communicated up to Washington that this was a terrorist attack." Graham did not specify whether that message was relayed to the White House or the State Department, or if that information was kept within the intelligence community.
"Either they're misleading the American people or incredibly incompetent," Graham said of the Obama administration. "There was no way with anybody looking at all that you could believe five days after the attack it was based on a riot that never occurred."
Obama's senior campaign adviser, David Axelrod, on Sunday refuted allegations that Rice or any other administration official deliberately tried to mislead the American public.
"Anyone would have said what she said, because that's the intelligence we were receiving," Axelrod said.
The Benghazi attack also has raised questions about whether the State Department had provided adequate security to embassy staff. Democrats blame Republicans for cutting more than $300 million in diplomatic security funds worldwide. Republicans say the State Department could have relied on other discretionary spending accounts to cover costs.
Lawmakers on both sides said Sunday that a supplemental spending measure is being considered. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he is planning to lead a congressional delegation to various hotspots around the world to ask U.S. diplomatic staff what security concerns they have.
Bloomberg News reported Sunday that Ambassador Stevens' father said he believes his son's death is being investigated adequately and that it would be "abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue."
Graham, Cummings and Issa spoke on CBS' "Face the Nation." Axelrod spoke on "Fox News Sunday."