NEW YORK: The Obama administration has faced mounting criticism as top U.S. officials revise on an almost daily basis their account of what happened in a deadly assault on a U.S. mission in Libya.
With 40 days left until presidential elections pitting the Democratic incumbent Barack Obama against Republican rival Mitt Romney, the dramatic events of September 11, 2012 are pulsating through the campaign.
At its core are allegations that the State Department, and by implication the U.S. administration, failed to protect its diplomats caught up in an hours-long siege of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
State Department officials initially spoke of a "complex attack" triggered by anger at an anti-Islam Internet video, although they cautioned that the full facts of what had happened were not known.
The diplomatic corps was in shock after the loss of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens in the attack -- the first serving ambassador killed on duty since the late 1970s -- and three other American personnel working for the mission.
Within hours, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was the work of "a small and savage group" and denounced the video said to have sparked a demonstration outside the mission, which then turned into a full-scale attack.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, that weekend described it as a "spontaneous attack" -- which occurred on the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on America.
As more questions were raised about the attack -- in which the U.S. compound was set ablaze and a nearby annex to which most of the staff had been evacuated came under sustained fire -- officials talked about a "coordinated" assault.
Libya for its part pointed the finger at foreigners from Al-Qaeda who were mixing with loyalists of Moamer Kadhafi, the long-reigning dictator overthrown and killed last year.
The initial version of events laid out in Washington began crumbling, even as the State Department said it was now an FBI crime scene and it could not answer any more questions relating to the investigation.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on September 17 refused to characterize it as a terrorist attack, saying "I don't think we know enough."
But two days later, the director of the U.S. government's National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olson, told lawmakers that, despite many unanswered questions, he was prepared to call the killings "a terrorist attack."
He cautiously evoked a link with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while Fox News suggested former Guantanamo detainee Sufyan Ben Qumu, transferred to his native Libya in 2007 and freed a year later, was involved.
Questions emerged whether Stevens himself had suggested he was on an Al-Qaeda hit list, and whether intelligence of a threat against the Benghazi mission had been ignored.
Both suggestions were dismissed by Clinton, who said there had been no such indications in the days prior to the attack.
A day later the White House finally said it was "a terrorist attack." Then, on Thursday of last week, Clinton briefed lawmakers behind closed-doors before admitting a day later that "what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack."
Clinton has also opened an official review, headed by veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering, to determine whether security measures were fully implemented.
With questions lingering, and after new revelations that Stevens's diary was found in the ruins of the Benghazi compound, White House spokesman Jay Carney this week reiterated Obama's view that it was a terrorist attack.
The same day, in a speech to a high-level meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Clinton appeared to suggest for the first time that AQIM was linked to the attack.
State Department officials were quick to push back, cautioning reporters not to read more into what Clinton said "than she actually said."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday said it was a planned "terrorist" attack, but it remained unclear if Al-Qaeda had a hand in the assault.
The contrasting versions of what took place and who was responsible have provided fodder for Romney's campaign, which on Thursday accused Obama's administration of trying to "mislead the American people."
"We were initially told that this was a spontaneous demonstration in response to a video that was on YouTube," the top political adviser to the Republican White House hopeful, Eric Fehrnstrom, told Fox News.
"Now we're learning that it was a pre-planned terrorist attack, conducted on the anniversary of 9/11, and that it involved elements of Al-Qaeda."
Veteran Republican Senator John McCain turned on Obama, who had said Al-Qaeda was on the run following the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.
"They were either incredibly naive or willfully deceiving the American people," McCain said on Twitter.
In reply, the White House has accused the Republicans of turning a tragedy into a partisan political affair in an election year.