During the Presidential Debate, Silence on Libya

During the final presidential debate neither candidate wanted to spend much time discussing the tragedy in Libya. Why?

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A Libyan man walks through the debris of the damaged U.S. ambassador's residence in the consulate compound in Benghazi on Sept. 13, 2012, following an attack on the building late on Sept. 11 in which the US ambassador to Libya and three other US nationals were killed.

Libya: That was the first issue Bob Schieffer asked the candidates about in Monday night’s presidential debate, referring to the attack last month against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, during which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Millions of viewers no doubt braced themselves for another bitter squabble between Mitt Romney and President Obama over who exactly was to blame.

The argument never came. Far from pummeling Obama for his mishandling of the assault on Sept. 11, Romney seemed keen to drop the discussion altogether, pivoting quickly to Mali — a country many Americans would have difficulty locating on a map of the world. Obama was happy to oblige, too, turning the discussion to one about American support for the Arab Spring last year and about the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan. From being the most divisive foreign policy issue during the past six weeks — indeed, one of the only divisive foreign policy issues at all — Libya all but vanished as a topic from the rest of the evening.

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What happened?

First, Romney calculated that he risked tumbling into a semantic swamp, as he did during the second presidential debate on Oct. 16, when he accused Obama of waiting two weeks before declaring the Benghazi attack a terrorist act. “Get the transcript,” Obama shot back. But in the debate’s post-mortem, the transcript of Obama’s remarks in the Rose Garden the day after the attack — that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation” —seemingly stopped short of pinning the Benghazi attack on terrorists, as Obama had implied.

Perhaps, too, both men have come to realize that determining who is to blame in Benghazi is extremely tricky at this stage, and that seizing on a still-opaque situation can be politically hazardous. New details are emerging almost daily, shifting the world’s understanding of what happened that night and what the current situation is on the ground.

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Six weeks after the attack, security consultants say that some of the responsibility for the attack lies with Libyan officials themselves. A Western security consultant with deep experience in the country says that the Libyan government has made it “very, very difficult” for security companies to operate in the country, leaving Western diplomats reliant on Libyans, few of whom are trained in close protection. The small Wales-based company Blue Mountain Group, which the U.S. hired last March to protect the American consulate in Benghazi, used locals on the ground, as required by the Libyan government. Those Blue Mountain guards on duty the night of Sept. 11 did not stand a chance against the armed assault, as TIME’s Steven Sotloff reported on Monday. Last week, the commander in charge of the small team that night told Reuters that he had been an English teacher, until he landed his job with Blue Mountain. “I don’t have a background in security,” he said. “I have never held a gun in my life.”

The Western security consultant with long experience in Libya tells TIME that it is hard to pin the blame for such glaring shortcomings entirely on the U.S. administration. “It is very difficult to get visas, it’s very difficult getting people on the ground,” says the consultant, who agreed to talk on the condition that he and his company remain anonymous. “The government is completely intolerant of private security.” Added to that, the lethal dangers for foreigners who are operating in Libya has increased so quickly that many businesses and governments have simply been catching up with reality. “Even in the spring this year, speaking to foreign diplomats in Libya, the impression was of continued progress,” he says. “It changed very dramatically in a very short period of time.”

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The details of Libya’s ever-changing upheaval is something neither Obama nor Romney was eager to get mired in during Monday night’s debate. Each candidate might well be aware that as president, he will face the daunting task of building up the U.S. presence in Libya, at a time when armed militia groups are engaged in violent factional warfare in several parts of the country.

Now comes another issue — one that could embroil the U.S. in another complication in Libya, no matter who is U.S. president come January: How to arrest and prosecute the Benghazi attackers. From the start, Obama has vowed to pursue those responsible and to bring them to justice. And again during Monday night’s debate, Obama said the U.S. “most importantly, would go after those who killed Americans and we would bring them to justice. And that is exactly what we are going to do.”

The reality might not be quite so simple, however. Some of the evidence in the Benghazi attack is feared lost, since officials left the consulate unguarded after the attack. FBI investigators only began on-the-ground scrutiny of the building weeks later. “The crime scenes have been corrupted,” says Jalal el-Gallal, the Libyan rebels’ former spokesman, by phone from Benghazi. “Most people know who the perpetrators are. It is just a matter of how they will be picked up and where they will be tried.”

(MORE: The Motive and the Means: Did al-Qaeda Stage the Benghazi Attack?)

Although U.S. officials have named Ahmed Abu Khattala, the head of the hardline Islamist Ansar al-Sharia organization, as a key suspect in the attack, he conducted leisurely interviews in a Benghazi hotel with Reuters and the New York Times last Thursday, an easy walk from the burned-out American consulate. And even if the suspects are arrested and charged, the location of any future trials is far from clear. The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that one key suspect, Ali Ani al-Harzi, is in custody in Tunisia. As yet there is no word about whether Libya is seeking his extradition.

In addition, U.S. officials might want to try the alleged murderers of American diplomats in the U.S. — a request that Libya would likely reject. “My preference would be that they would be tried here,” Ali Tarhouni, Libya’s former Finance Minister, and a leading Libyan politician, said in a phone interview from Tripoli last week. “This is a murder that was committed on Libyan soil, he says, adding, “I think the U.S. should play a role.” That job will be on the mind of whoever occupies the White House next year.

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