WASHINGTON — The White House has put special operations strike forces on standby and moved drones into the skies above Africa, ready to strike militant targets from Libya to Mali — if investigators can find the Al Qaeda-linked group responsible for the death of the US ambassador and three other Americans in Libya.
But officials say the administration is weighing whether the short-term payoff of exacting retribution on Al Qaeda is worth the risk that such strikes could elevate the group’s profile in the region, alienate governments the United States needs to fight it in the future, and do little to slow the growing terror threat in North Africa.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is taking responsibility for security at a US consulate in Libya where an assault by extremists on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks killed the four Americans.
Pushing back against Republican criticism of the Obama administration for its handling of the situation, Clinton said Monday in Lima, Peru, that security at all of America’s diplomatic missions abroad is her job, not that of the White House. She made the comments in several television interviews.
‘‘I take responsibility,’’ she told CNN. ‘‘I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world (at) 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They’re the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision.’’
Details on the administration’s position and on its search for a possible target were provided by three current and one former administration official, as well as an analyst who is helping the White House. All four spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the high-level debates publicly.
The dilemma is that the White House wants to demonstrate it is responding forcefully to Al Qaeda, but must balance that against its long-term plans to develop relationships with local governments and build a permanent US counterterrorist network in the region.
Vice President Joe Biden pledged in his debate last week with Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to find those responsible for the attack on the consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
‘‘We will find and bring to justice the men who did this,’’ Biden said in response to a question about whether intelligence failures led to lax security around Stevens and the consulate.
The White House declined to comment on the internal debate over how best to respond to the Benghazi attack.
The attack has become an issue in the presidential election, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of being slow to label the assault an act of terrorism early on, and slow to strike back at those responsible.
‘‘They are aiming for a small pop, a flash in the pan, so as to be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing something about it,’ ’’ said retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rudy Attalah, the former Africa counterterrorism director for the Department of Defense under President George W. Bush.
A Washington-based analyst with extensive experience in Africa said that administration officials have approached him asking for help in connecting the dots to Mali, whose northern half fell to Al Qaeda-linked rebels this spring. They wanted to know if he could suggest potential targets, which he says he was not able to do.
‘‘The civilian side is looking into doing something, and is running into a lot of pushback from the military side,’’ the analyst said. ‘‘The resistance that is coming from the military side is because the military has both worked in the region and trained in the region.’’
PLEDGE TO ACT
Islamists say they are prepared for a response from the United States.
‘‘If America hits us, I promise you that we will multiply the Sept. 11 attack by 10,’’ said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for the Islamists in northern Mali, while denying that his group or Al Qaeda fighters based in Mali played a role in the Benghazi attack.
The key suspects are members of the Libyan militia group Ansar al-Shariah. The group has denied responsibility, but eyewitnesses saw Ansar fighters at the consulate, and US intelligence intercepted phone calls after the attack from Ansar fighters to leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, bragging about it.
The affiliate’s leaders are known to be mostly in northern Mali, where they have seized a territory as large as Texas after a coup in the country’s capital.
But US investigators have only loosely linked ‘‘one or two names’’ to the attack, and they lack proof that it was planned, or that the local fighters had any help from the larger Al Qaeda affiliate, officials say.
If that proof is found, the White House must decide whether to ask Libyan security forces to arrest the suspects with an eye to extraditing them to the United States for trial, or to target the suspects with US covert action.
US officials say covert action is more likely. The FBI could not gain access to the consulate until weeks after the attack, so it is unlikely it will be able to build a strong criminal case.
The United States is also leery of trusting the arrest and questioning of the suspects to the fledgling Libyan security forces and a legal system still building after the overthrow of Moammar Khadafy in 2011.