Andrea Mitchell   |  October 15, 2012

Was the US misled about the situation in Libya?

Several prominent Republicans are accusing the White House of either covering up, or bungling initial reports about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen joins Andrea Mitchell Reports to discuss the investigation.

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>>> and several prominent republicans here are accusing the white house of either covering up or bungling initial reports about the attack on the u.s. consulate in libya . this while a veteran diplomat, lawrence pope, has now been brought out of retirement. he has been sent to tripoli to temporarily at least fill in for the late ambassador, chris stevens . joining me now, former defense secretary , william cohen . bill, thanks very much for being with us. you probably saw that lindsey graham said this is either incompetence or a cover-up, suggesting there was a cover-up. from what you have read, what do you think happened with the initial reporting and the fact that for as long as five days later, they are still saying it could have some relationship to a protest when we have been told by state department briefers and by the testimony on capitol hill that they knew in realtime on an open line from benghazi to tripoli and from benghazi to washington exactly what was happening as those large groups of heavily armed men went over the wall and invaded the compound?

>> well, i think it's important that we not have the verdict first and then the trial second. we need to find out what all of the facts were, what were the cables going back from ambassador stevens to the state department ? did they reach the deputy secretary of state? did they reach secretary clinton? or did they get buried in a bureaucrat iic maze? we don't know yet. we don't know what they were requesting and how high up that went. secondly, we have to remember that security for our diplomatic personnel at least in the mbah embassy is provided by the host country. to the extent you have a new country as such with new leadership, we don't have the institutions in place. they don't have the security apparatus. so did that require extra security provided by the united states , and could we provide that with the content of the host government because they might have concluded that too much of a military force would look more like an occupation rather than simply security. so these are issues that have to be really examined. i think it's legitimate and very fair to raise the questions. i think it's unfair to reach a conclusion until we have all of the answers. and i don't think those have been fully provided. secondly, i think there are two issues involved. do i think that the video was calculated to provoke? it was and it did. and when you put your finger or stir up a hornet's nest, someone's going to get hurt. but i think there were groups like al qaeda -affiliated groups who were going to plan to attack our embassy personnel at some point and were looking for an excuse, and they got it when there was confusion and chaos with a reaction to that provocative film. so there are a lot of conflict involved here. we need to sort through the facts and see where we go from here.

>> do you think that governor romney has been too aggressive and paul ryan in his debate with joe biden in accusing the administration of either covering up or bungling this?

>> i think we need to wait for the facts. i think it's fair for them to raise the issues, what happened? we need answers. we want answers as quickly as we can. understand that the first reports are usually in error. but there should not be any tremendous delay here. i think it's important the american people find out. whether or not a country -- well, libya , by way of example, can, in fact, provide the protection that's going to be necessary, and if they can't, we have two choices. either to put more force in, which may be objectionable, or to pull our diplomats out because if the country can't protect them, libya , and doesn't have the institutions, the military, the paramilitary to protect them, then pull our people out because we can't put them at risk. this is the host nation's obligation to protect them. we can have limited protection, but we can't occupy the country. we don't have military bases in libya . so i think we have to make a judgment whether or not we can continue to provide our kind of diplomatic support, economic support and hopefully the country, over a period of time, will be able to develop the institutions that will promote the rule of law, provide for openness and make sure that we are secure. in our personnel.

>> finally on syria , reporting over the weekend in "the new york times" that exactly what was feared could be happening in the field, that the weapons, even the light weapons that are being provided by qatar and the saudi arabians is getting into the hands of the islamists.

>> this is one of the real challenges, as we've learned, we have to be very careful what we're doing in that part of the world to make sure that "a," that we're providing, whether it's humanitarian or intelligence or even military, which i don't think we provided to date, that we make sure that it's going to the right people. but i think what's clear in syria right now is i don't think russia or china are going to be helpful. in fact, i think with the most recent allegation about russian weapons going into syria , they're going to prove very counterproductive. i think we need to look at egypt, we need to look at qatar and turkey and see whether or not those three countries can take the lead possibly with uae -- united arab emirates -- jumping in and providing really a basis for action being taken to set up some sort of safety zone so the hundreds of thousands of people who are being displaced can be protected. and that means with turkey is involved and it certainly will involve a much broader alliance of people and countries. i think if they take the initiative, the united states can play a role. i don't think the united states can be the one initiating the action in terms of heavy weaponry, anti-aircraft weapons being delivered to the group at this point. i think that they run the risk of falling into the hands of groups that will be very adverse to the u.s. interests in the future. but i do think the international community , it's not going to come through the u.n. security council , it will have to be the countries in the region taking initiative with support coming from the united states , the french, the brits and others.

>> bill cohen , thank you very much. clearly an issue that's going to come up tomorrow night in the debate. thanks for being with us today.