Libya in flames (photo: شبكة برق | B.R.Q)

Tonight’s debate is supposed to be focused mainly on the economy, but the Romney campaign has worked hard to get the Benghazi consulate attack into the conversation. And given the shifting story from the White House and the potential implications, that might be a good idea.

House Republicans gave a boost to this argument by seeking responses from the State Department about previous attacks on the US consulate, prior intelligence about the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others, and the failure to protect the personnel. Reps. Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz sent the letter to the State Department containing this information, and could hold a hearing on the Libya situation next week.

Why this is going through the House Oversight Committee and not the House Intelligence Committee is unclear. And while Issa and conservative media treat the two prior attacks on the consulate and other information in the letter as a bombshell, it turns out that the Wall Street Journal reported on it 10 days ago. It was Ambassador Stevens who actually approved the lighter security presence in Benghazi; he didn’t want a large barrier between him and the Libyan people, according to State Department officials.

Issa and Chaffetz are following the Carterization of Obama on the Libya attack, a strategy that the Romney campaign already previewed. Nevertheless, there are legitimate questions to ask about the attack. Adam Serwer provides some.

1. Did US officials in Benghazi request increased security prior to the September 11 attack on the consulate, as Reps Darrell Issa (R-Calif) and Mike Chaffetz (R-Utah) allege in their letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? If so, was it refused and why?

2. Why did your administration initially believe the attack had been spontaneous rather than pre-planned?

3. Your administration has applied the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force to justify strikes against groups affiliated with Al Qaeda that did not exist on 9/11/01. Does the AUMF and its “reaffirmation” in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act apply to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or any of the militant groups operating in Libya? If so, does this mean we are again at war in Libya?

4. If the US discovers who was involved in the attack, will the US military act unilaterally to kill or capture them? If so, does your administration fear that unilateral US action will sap the goodwill towards the US and antipathy towards the militias expressed by Libyan citizens since the attack?

5. If the perpetrators of the Benghazi attack are captured during your presidency, either by Libyan or US forces, will they be tried in federal court in the United States?

I think the WSJ article answered #1. The rest are all very legitimate areas of inquiry. Indeed, the chatter that attack plans and targets are being drawn up before the FBI or any US personnel has even been to the attack site, and before individuals with information about the attack have even been questioned, should concern people. And this gets tied up with the new American way of war, favoring drones and covert operations. It gets to the heart of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. That’s definitely something I’d like to hear about tonight.