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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a conference in Peru, blames ‘the fog of war’ for the evolving account of the terror attack in Libya that killed four Americans in September.

MARIANA BAZO/Reuters

In an effort to head off a full-blown political crisis, Hillary Clinton sought to deflect Republican attacks depicting President Barack Obama as weak and fumbling in his handling of the Benghazi terrorist assault that killed four Americans on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks.

After the White House claimed it was unaware that U.S. diplomats in Libya had asked that battle-hardened and specially trained U.S. Marines stay on to protect them, Ms. Clinton stepped up to provide some political cover.

"I take responsibility," Secretary of State Clinton said. "The President and the Vice-President wouldn't be knowledgeable" about the State Department decision last spring to reject the request for enhanced protection in violence-torn Libyan.

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Republicans, sensing presidential vulnerability, have been hammering away as the Obama administration keeps changing its version of what happened last month in Benghazi. Ms. Clinton blames "the fog of war" for the evolving account and insists there has been no effort to hide the truth.

"I know that we're very close to an election," she said, adding: "What I want to avoid is some kind of political 'gotcha' or blame."

That plea hasn't mollified the President's Republican critics.

"If the President was aware of these earlier attacks in Benghazi prior to the events of Sept. 11, 2012, then he bears full responsibility," a troika of senior Republicans, led by Senator John McCain, the war veteran who lost to Mr. Obama in 2008, said Monday in a statement.

"The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the Commander-in-Chief. The buck stops there," they added in a pointed reference to the sign famously displayed in the President Harry Truman Oval Office.

The killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans has erupted into an election issue.

"When the Vice-President of the United States directly contradicts the sworn testimony of State Department officials, American citizens have a right to know what's going on," Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential challenger, said on Friday.

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He was referring to Vice-President Joe Biden's insistence that "we weren't told they wanted more security," only days after Congressional hearings heard details of rejected requests for the Marines to stay on in Libya. The "we" – the White House explained later – meant the President and Vice-President, not the whole administration.

What began as tough questions about security in Libya "has morphed into an issue of credibility and truthfulness," said James Carafano, who heads The Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. Barely a month after the slayings in Libya and with multiple investigations still under way, "we don't know enough to be able to determine what went wrong and what conclusions to draw," Mr. Carafano said in an interview. "But the administration has mixed and muddled its message so it's now wide open to criticism about its handling of the aftermath."

Initially, senior administration officials blamed the Benghazi attack on a mob incited by a crude anti-Muslim video. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was adamant in saying it was an infuriated crowd and had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 anniversary.

Ms. Rice later blamed American intelligence officials for giving her faulty "talking points" in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

In the weeks that followed, as it became clear that a well-armed, well-trained unit of Islamic extremists had conducted a sophisticated attack against the lightly defended U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, the Obama administration has repeatedly amended its version of events.

"There is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn't just a mob action," Mr. Obama said, a full two weeks after the attack. He was immediately faulted to failing to use the word "terrorism."

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