When it comes to attacks on U.S. embassies, Republicans have short, selective memories

In this video capture, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, left, visits the site of the attack that killed nine Americans  in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2003.
In this video capture, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, left, visits the site of the attack that killed nine Americans in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2003. AP Photo

Attacks on U.S. embassies and murders of diplomats are nothing new. Where was the political response during the Bush years?

Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld took a predictably hypocritical shot at the Obama administration when he provided his explanation of why the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya occurred on Sept. 11, 2012. It happened because, he said, of "perceived American weakness" under the leadership of President Barrack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In other words, attackers felt they could unleash violence and not be held responsible by a weak-kneed administration.

Four Americans died in the attack, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. In case you hadn't noticed, Republicans are alleging that the Department of State failed to take proper actions both before and during the assault and therefore should be held responsible for the deaths. The GOP is readying an eighth congressional investigation into Benghazi. Its goal is to turn the tragedy into a campaign issue.

What Rumsfeld failed to mention in his remarks was that there were 12 attacks on American embassies, consulates and compounds during the administration of President George W. Bush. Eight of them occurred when Rumsfeld was in office. In those attacks 60 people (excluding attackers) were killed, including 11 Americans.

In some of the cases red flags were waving, suggesting that an attack was possible if not probable, and the warnings came in the form of both words and actions.

The most deadly event during the Bush years occurred on May 12, 2003 when nine Americans were killed at an American compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This took place even though the State Department had warned Americans of a likely attack on U.S. interests.

Christopher Stevens isn't the only high-ranking diplomat to be killed at an American embassy or consulate. On March 2, 2006, administrative officer David Foy and three others (not Americans) were killed outside the gates of a consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. Warnings came in the form of three terrorist incidents at the embassy during the previous four years.

There also was a Sept. 17, 2008 attack on the embassy in Sana'a, Yemen. An American woman and her Yemeni husband were among 10 killed. There had been a terrorist incident outside that embassy seven months earlier.

Could more have been done to prevent these assaults and the others during the Bush watch?

The answer is a wishy-washy, perhaps. And the same holds true regarding the Benghazi attack. The fact is that bad things often happen in dangerous places. Poor judgment may have been a factor in any of the incidents. Investigations may provide some of the answers, but - as in Benghazi - much of the information is murky and therefore open to interpretation.

What is known is that congressional Democrats didn't conduct exhaustive investigations into the attacks under Bush or use these tragedies to score political points.

Embassy assaults have occurred throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, including incidents under Presidents Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama. One of the most notorious ones came in 1979 when revolutionary Iranians stormed the embassy in Tehran when Carter was president.

The most deadly assaults came during the administration of Ronald Reagan. In 1983 a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into a U.S Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 Americans. There had been a warning. Just six months earlier, another bomber killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, during an attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut.

Reagan, whose calling card was "peace through strength," acknowledged that his administration had lacked the necessary intelligence to stop the attacks. "I think that terrorism is the hardest thing to curtail," he said at one point.

Congress conducted just one hearing, a bipartisan one, that led to recommendations of how to improve security at American installations. Democrats did not use the incident to savage the Republican administration.

Journalist Brian Beutler, writing in the New Republic, contemplated just how wild-eyed the GOP would become if Beirut-style events were to happen with Obama in office.

On a broader scale - beyond what has happened at American diplomatic posts - there are the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. The New York Times has reported that the Bush White House had received intelligence briefings for several months that a major attack on U.S. soil was becoming increasingly likely. Included in the intelligence was an Aug. 6, 2001 report titled, "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."

The Times reported that the Bush administration, for the most part, didn't take the CIA warnings seriously.

Would the 9/11 plot have been prevented if the Bush administration had aggressively acted upon the warnings?

Nobody knows.

Stan DeCoster is a former reporter and editor for The Day, now retired. He lives in Salem.

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