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

Tonight’s Presidential debate will focus on foreign policy, and that means we will once again wade into this attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the details of which look more muddled than ever. The need for clarity among the media and political class – either this arose from a spontaneous demonstration, or it was a pre-planned Al Qaeda assault – took quite a few hits over the weekend.

First, we learned that the CIA, at the time UN Ambassador Susan Rice went on the Sunday shows and discussed the attack in terms of a response to the video, prepared the talking points that she used for that analysis. This is what those talking points said: “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.” The CIA wasn’t sure of this information, and properly hedged it within the document they sent out. Rice described the narrative as the “best information” she had at the moment.

Even though the Administration later backed away from this analysis, reporting from David Kirkpatrick at the New York Times indicates that the video did play a role. There may not have been a specific protest outside the consulate that then turned into an assault – in fact, US intelligence discovered that the same weekend that Rice went on the air, but didn’t get her the information in time – but the decision to make the assault came out of the reaction to both the video and the protests in other Muslim cities like Cairo, Egypt. Intelligence indicates that the militants who participated in the Benghazi attack watched the Cairo protests and were inspired by them.

Furthermore, there’s no evidence of a pre-meditated attack, although that consulate had been attacked on at least two previous occasions:

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, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter still under investigation. “The attackers exhibited a high degree of disorganization. Some joined the attack in progress, some did not have weapons and others just seemed interested in looting.”

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.

The real question should concern security at the consulate, which did have these prior incidents. However, to the extent that anyone requested additional security in Libya, it was for the embassy in Tripoli, not the consulate in Benghazi.

This hazy, fog-of-war situation will now get hammered like a square peg into the round hole of our political debate. The Administration’s reaction to the assault was properly solemn, and they reflected the tension of the intelligence as it came in by tailoring their responses accordingly. The security situation hasn’t been discussed nearly as much as this notion of a cover-up, because Republicans always focus their foreign policy critiques on posturing rather than actions. And that will be reflected tonight as well. Real questions can be asked about the Benghazi assault, but we probably won’t hear any of them tonight.