White House blames video, not Islamic politics, for embassy crisis

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday fended off critical questions about the spreading Arab crisis by blaming a little-seen Youtube video for the attacks, and by asking Americans to line up behind President Barack Obama in mourning the four Americans murdered in Libya.

Obama attended the televised 2.15 p.m. fly-in of the four caskets at Andrews Air Force Base, amid growing reports about intelligence and bureaucratic failures, and increasing GOP criticism of his high-risk support for Islamic parties.

Media outlets have reported that officials ignored or missed intelligence warnings about impending attacks, that the U.S. staff in Libya had little protection and few U.S. guards, and that the embassy in Cairo tried to protect itself from the Islamist rioters by labeling the satirical Youtube video as an “abuse” of free speech.

The criticism “has been both factually wrong and poorly timed,” Carney complained, adding that “now is time when Americans should be coming together.”

“There was no intelligence that in any way that could have been acted on to prevent these attacks,” he insisted.

But Obama is distancing himself from Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamad Morsi.

In August, media reports said the president was planning to meet Morsi during an upcoming United Nations Meeting in New York.

But Carney announced on Friday that “the president has no bilateral meeting scheduled at this moment.”

Nonetheless, shortly after Carney’s press briefing, one of Obama’s deputies announced they had asked YouTube to take down the controversial video, following requests from Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party. (RELATED: Obama submits to Brotherhood, asks for suppression of anti-Islam video)

Obama’s election campaign is now hostage to Islamist politics from Jordan to Egypt to Tunisia, because Islamist-directed riots and attacks can wreck his election-trail claim that he is successfully disengaging from the wars against jihad groups.

Attacks on embassies have spread from Egypt and Libya to Yemen and Tunisia, even as Obama called on Islamist leaders to denounce and prevent the attacks.

The embassy attacks and protests are fights “about power” among competing Islamist groups, Hisham Melhem, a director of the Al Arabiya TV channel, said during a Sept. 14 event at the American Enterprise Institute.

Those populist parties can boost their clout by competing for the role of the most anti-American party in a region where anti-American attitudes are the norm.

The Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S embassy in Cairo, for example, were arranged by a jihad-linked group seeking the release of a jihadi leader from a U.S. jail, said Eric Trager, an expert on Islamists at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The group boosted its turnout by spurring devout Islamist to anger over the little-known satirical video, titled “The Innocence of Muslims.” (WATCH: The anti-Muhammad video cited as cause of unrest)

However, Carney on Friday tried to downplay the central role played by the Islamist parties who are vying for popularity in populations that support the establishment of Islamic laws — rather than human-made, secular laws — in their countries.

Instead, he repeatedly shifted the blame to the producer of the anti-Islam video in California, which is roughly 7,500 miles from Egypt.

The attacks are “a response to a video, a film, that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting — that in no way justified any violent reaction to it — but this is not a case of protests against the United States writ large or [against] U.S. policy,” he claimed.

When asked if the sophisticated Libya assault that killed the four officials was also a reaction to the video, Carney responded carefully, saying, “we have no information to suggest that it was a pre-planned attack.”

The administration’s focus on the video was heightened by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the arrival of the four bodies from Egypt.

The attacks came amid “rage over an awful Internet video, that we had nothing to do with… it is senseless and it is totally unacceptable,” she said.

Amid the repeated denunciations of the video, Carney did mention the Constitution’s protection of free speech. “We cannot and will not squelch freedom of expression in this country — it is a foundational principle,” he said.

But he then repeated his demand that questioning reporters and skeptical Americans rally behind the president.

“I’ll just go back to what I said, that this is a time that it is in the best interest of the country to focus on the four personnel, the four Americans that we lost in Libya,” he said, “and on the measures we need to take as nation.”

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