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Terrorist attack in Benghazi kills American ambassador to Libya, two U.S. Marines

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher J. Stevens, Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith and two U.S. Marines were killed yesterday when terrorists attacked the American consulate in Benghazi with rocket-propelled grenades and firearms during a protest by angry Libyans upset with a trailer for an anonymously-produced film that denigrates Islam, the White House has confirmed.

The attack on the consulate is believed to have been carried out following some methodical planning on the part of the terrorists. A group affiliated with al Qaeda is reportedly considered to be the top suspect.

“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

“Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.”

“Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States. Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi. As Ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya’s transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice. I am profoundly grateful for his service to my Administration, and deeply saddened by this loss.”

In remarks in the Rose Garden this morning, the President noted that Libyan authorities attempted to protect Stevens and his team in the face of the attack.

“Libyan security personnel fought back against the attackers alongside Americans.  Libyans helped some of our diplomats find safety, and they carried Ambassador Stevens’s body to the hospital, where we tragically learned that he had died.”

A squadron of fifty U.S. Marines who have received special training on protecting U.S. diplomats have been sent to Libya, President Obama said.

The American embassy in Cairo, Egypt was also stormed by an ultraconservative mob upset by the film trailer. Some individuals from the mob scaled the embassy’s walls, tore down the American flag, and replaced it with a black Islamist flag. Thousands of Egyptian police officers in riot gear responded to the mob. They persuaded those inside the compound to leave, and then remained on guard to keep watch on the crowd outside of the embassy.

No one inside the Cairo embassy was hurt.

Libyan leaders quickly expressed their condolences and vowed to find and punish those responsible for the attack on the consulate.

“We apologize to the United States, the people and to the whole world for what happened. We confirm that no one will escape from punishment and questioning,” said Mohamed Yousef el-Magariaf, the President of the General National Congress of Libya, echoing comments by Libya’s prime minister.

In an attempt to quell anger directed towards the United States, the American embassy in Cairo released a statement concerning the film that it did not clear with the Department of State. “[W]e firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the statement read, adding that the embassy “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”. The statement was apparently put out before the violent attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, and before protesters scaled the walls of the embassy in Cairo.

The statement has since been disavowed by the Obama administration, even though it did not appear in any way to contradict official U.S. policy.

Writing for The Atlantic, Max Fisher mused that the incident demonstrates the complexity of diplomacy in the Middle East.

From an American perspective, it was immediately clear that the offending film, Innocence of Muslims, represented only the deranged views of its still-mysterious hobbyist producers. It is also immediately clear that one cost of free speech is that you will sometimes be offended. But, in the Egyptian context, this might not have been quite so obvious. “People [in the Arab world] commonly believe that whatever happens in the American media … inevitably the American government is involved,” American University professor and former Pakistani ambassador Akbar Ahmed said on NPR this morning, explaining that, in countries such as Egypt, often a movie can’t get made without the government’s approval. This may explain some Egyptians’ apparent belief that the U.S. government approved of the film, which may in turn explain the embassy’s desire to clarify that they certainly do not.

Meanwhile, Egyptian pro-democracy activist Wael Ghoneim tried to explain to the Arab world how the attacks would be viewed in the United States:

[A]ttacking the US embassy on September 11 and raising flags linked to al Qaeda will not be understood by the American public as a protest over the film about the prophet… Instead, it will be received as a celebration of the crime that took place on September 11th.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made the deplorable decision to attempt to use the tragedy to score political points. Instead of simply expressing sorrow for the death of Ambassador Stevens, his assistant, and protective detail, Romney blasted the Obama administration for the way it handled the incident.

Romney offensively claimed that the administration’s response appeared to “sympathize with those who waged the attacks”.

Romney also erroneously described the American consulate in Benghazi as an embassy (there is a big difference between the two types of facilities) and referred to the city as the capital of Libya (the capital is actually Tripoli).

The Obama campaign rebuked Romney for his remarks.

“We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.

“Gov. Romney’s comments are about as inappropriate as anything I have ever seen at this kind of a moment,” added Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and is considered to be a possible successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State.

“They are flat wrong, but they demonstrate an insensitivity and a lack of judgment about what is happening right now.’

“To make those kinds of statements before you even know the facts, before families have even been notified before things have played out is really not just inexperienced, it’s irresponsible, it’s callous, it’s reckless.”

Romney did not back down from his statement after reporters questioned the statement he had released late yesterday evening.

But other Republicans were far more thoughtful and tactful, choosing to behave like statesmen instead of political opportunists.

Republicans versed in foreign policy were aghast over the Romney statement, according to BuzzFeed.

“They were just trying to score a cheap news cycle hit based on the embassy statement and now it’s just completely blown up,” said a very senior Republican foreign policy hand, who called the statement an “utter disaster” and a “Lehman moment” — a parallel to the moment when John McCain, amid the 2008 financial crisis, failed to come across as a steady leader.

Tellingly, even Romney’s own running mate – U.S. Representative Paul Ryan – has refrained from the kind of unrestrained and unfair criticism leveled by Romney in his reaction to the tragedy. Romney, as mentioned, has chosen to double down on his original statement, which won’t go over well.