The recent death of Christopher Stevens, the American Ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans at our consulate in Libya was a tragic loss of life and a sobering reminder of the challenges for American foreign policy. A week ago Sunday, our U.N. Ambassador, Susan Rice, announced that the violence that led to these deaths was fueled by anger to “Innocence of Muslims,” a video parody of the prophet Muhammad.
However, at the same time of Ambassador Rice's statements, Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif claimed the attacks were premeditated, likely in response to the killing of a senior al-Qaeda leader in Libya earlier this year.
I no longer hold a security clearance, nor am I present at sensitive discussions in the Oval Office or the Situation Room with the President of the United States about top-secret national security matters. So, like virtually everyone else offering an opinion on this matter with even less national security experience, I do not know what I do not know.
However, I do know that a narrative that suggests the killings at the consulate were premeditated would raise serious questions for the U.S. government. For one, a successful premeditated attack would raise the question of why this Administration did not detect and prevent the threat. It might suggest an intelligence failure in collection and/or analysis. Were there warnings, and if so, were they ignored?
A premeditated attack might also indicate our national security policy to hunt down al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists has not had a deterrent effect. Additionally, it might be an indication that our foreign policy strategy to persuade other countries to deny sanctuary to these extremists is not succeeding.
Finally, if the killings were premeditated, then our government must decide how to respond in order to deter future attacks on American embassies and citizens overseas. The American people are understandably weary of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Consequently, our government may be reluctant to take action beyond predator strikes for fear of a miscalculation that leaves the United States in a Middle East quagmire.
The Administration has recently conceded the attacks in Libya were likely premeditated. Early reporting of these types of violent events overseas are often incomplete and inaccurate. I leave it to others to question why the Administration's initial assessment was wrong. I am more concerned about finding the guilty and bringing them to justice.
This week President Obama addresses the United Nations where he undoubtedly will again condemn the video. The President should also be clear that he will deal forcefully with anyone or any group who attacks American citizens or our embassies. The American people and those who died in America’s service deserve no less.
Alberto R. Gonzales is the former U.S. Attorney General and White House Counsel in the George W. Bush Administration. Presently he is the Dean and Doyle Rogers Distinguished Professor of Law at Belmont University College of Law.