GOP Pounces After News of CIA Cable on Libya Raid

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walk back to their seats after speaking during the Transfer of Remains Ceremony, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., marking the return to the United States of the remains of the four Americans killed this week in Benghazi, Libya.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walk back to their seats after speaking during the Transfer of Remains Ceremony Sept. 14 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., marking the return to the United States of the remains of the four Americans killed in Benghazi, Libya.

Associated Press + More

By KIMBERLY DOZIER and MATT APUZZO, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sensing a moment of political vulnerability on national security, Republicans pounced Friday on disclosures that President Barack Obama's administration could have known early on that militants, not angry protesters, launched the attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya.

[GALLERY: U.S. Ambassador Killed in Benghazi]

Within 24 hours of the deadly attack, the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington that there were eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants, officials told The Associated Press. But for days, the Obama administration blamed it on an out-of-control demonstration over an American-made video ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, led Friday's charge.

"Look around the world, turn on your TV," Ryan said in an interview with WTAQ radio in the election battleground state of Wisconsin. "And what we see in front of us is the absolute unraveling of the Obama administration's foreign policy."

[READ: Paul Ryan Not Dropping Out of Re-Election Bid as His Opponent's Note Claims]

As a security matter, how the Obama administration immediately described the attack has little effect on broader counterterrorism strategies or on the hunt for those responsible for the incident, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. And Republicans have offered no explanation for why the president would want to conceal the nature of the attack.

But the issue has given Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney an opportunity to question Obama on foreign policy and national security, two areas that have received little attention in an election dominated by the U.S. economy. Obama's signature national security accomplishment is the military's killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

Ryan was teeing up the issue for Monday's presidential debate on foreign policy.

"I'm excited we're going to have a chance to talk about that on Monday," Ryan said.

Obama, speaking Thursday on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," insisted that information was shared with the American people as it came in. The attack is under investigation, Obama said, and "the picture eventually gets filled in."

"What happens, during the course of a presidency, is that the government is a big operation and any given time something screws up," Obama said. "And you make sure that you find out what's broken and you fix it."

The report from the station chief was written late Wednesday, Sept. 12, and reached intelligence agencies in Washington the next day, intelligence officials said. It is not clear how widely the information from the CIA station chief was circulated.

U.S. intelligence officials have said the information was just one of many widely conflicting accounts, which became clearer by the following week.

But former CIA station chief Fred Rustmann Jr. says the White House would have been aware of it.

"When things go down like that, there is no analysis in between," said Rustmann, who has separately accused the Obama administration of sharing too many details about the raid that killed bin Laden. "You report this raw information as you receive it in Sitrep (situation report) format, from the CIA station to concerned worldwide (CIA) stations and bases and to the White House, Pentagon and State Department."

Only afterward would those initial reports be compiled and cross-checked by analysts with other information, he said.

Democrats have spent the past week explaining the administration's handling of the attack. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said a period of uncertainty typically follows attacks.

"In the wake of an attack like this, in the fog of war, there's always going to be confusion," Clinton said. "And I think it is absolutely fair to say that everyone had the same intelligence. Everyone who spoke tried to give the information that they had."

On Tuesday, Obama and Romney argued over when the president first called it a terrorist attack. In his Rose Garden address the morning after the killings, Obama said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."