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The Obama-Romney clash over Libya

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Video: Watch the exchange between President Obama and Mitt Romney on Libya at Tuesday night’s presidential debate.

The White House took issue with our instant fact check of the exchange on Libya between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. This is probably the pivotal moment of the second presidential debate.

“The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”

— Obama

“I think interesting the president just said something, which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.... I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”

— Romney

The moderator, Candy Crowley then jumped in. The first part of her comment has been often replayed, but less focus has been on the second part.

“He did call it an act of terror,” Crowley told Romney. “It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.”

This is how we assessed the exchange:

What did Obama say in the Rose Garden a day after the attack in Libya? We covered this previously in our extensive timeline of administration statements on Libya.
“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for,” Obama said.
But the president did not say “terrorism”— and Romney got tripped up when he repeated the “act of terror” phrasing.

Otherwise, Romney’s broader point is accurate — that it took the administration days to concede that the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an “act of terrorism” that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad. (The reporting is contradictory on whether there was indeed a demonstration outside the mission.) By our count, it took eight days for an administration official to concede that the deaths in Libya was the result of a “terrorist attack.”

More to Romney’s point, Obama continued to resist saying the “T” word, instead repeatedly bringing up the video, even in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25. On Sept. 26 — 15 days after the attack — the White House spokesman felt compelled to assert “it is certainly the case that it is our view as an administration, the president’s view, that it was a terrorist attack.”

But White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote us to dispute this assessment. He noted that Obama made three statements that referenced “act of terror” in the days following the attack. He further stated that the statement by counterterrorism director Matt Olsen was based on specific criteria regarding the term “international terrorism” and that “there was considerable confusion on the ground” about what actually happened in Benghazi before the attack.

The debate over Libya has become so politically charged and confusing that it’s time for a refresher course to sort this out.

The Facts

Just as it is sometimes possible for Supreme Court justices to pick and choose among legal precedents in deciding a case, here too one can construct different narratives about the administration’s words. Here’s the case the administration is trying to make now.

“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

— Obama, Rose Garden, Sept. 12

We want to send a message all around the world — anybody who would do us harm: No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America.”

— Obama, campaign event in Las Vegas, Sept. 13

“I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. It will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.”

— Obama, campaign event in Golden, Colo., Sept. 13

Note that in all three cases, the language is not as strong as Obama asserted in the debate. Obama declared that he said “that this was an act of terror.” But actually the president spoke in vague terms, usually wrapped in a patriotic fervor. One could presume he was speaking of the incident in Libya, but he did not affirmatively state that the American ambassador died because of an “act of terror.”

Some readers may think we are dancing on the head of pin here. The Fact Checker spent nine years as diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, and such nuances of phrasing are often very important. A president does not simply utter virtually the same phrase three times in two days about a major international incident without careful thought about the implications of each word.

The White House understands this. Our timeline noted that only after Matt Olsen went to Capitol Hill on Sept. 19 and called it a terrorist act did White House spokesman Jay Carney on Sept. 20 tell reporters that it was “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”

In the same briefing, Carney acknowledged that the White House had never before said it was a terrorist act:

REPORTER: “I just hadn’t heard the White House say that this was an act of terrorism or a terrorist attack. And I just –”
MR. CARNEY: “I don’t think the fact that we hadn’t is not — as our NCTC Director testified yesterday, a number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area. We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s affiliates, in particular al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb…. It appears that some well-armed militants seized on the opportunity as the events unfolded that evening. We do not have any specific intelligence that there was significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack. Again, that is the best information we have right now.”

Now, conveniently, Obama reaches back to the period immediately after the attack to argue he did indeed call it an “act of terror.” Funny that his spokesman did not remember that.

As we have previously documented, for at least two weeks Obama in particular did not want to utter the “T” word. His speech to the U.N. General Assembly made repeated references to a vile video that the administration initially suggested was behind the attacks. A day later, he still shied away from calling it an act of terrorism.

QUESTION: “I heard Hillary Clinton say it was an act of terrorism. Is it? What do you say?”
OBAMA: “We are still doing an investigation. There is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. Now, we don’t have all the information yet so we are still gathering.”
— Obama, on ABC’s “The View,” Sept. 25.

So at the very least, the administration was not being consistent. Why would Obama readily say “act of terror” for two days but then drop it, and then even resist saying “act of terrorism” when other members of his administration had already acknowledged the term?

Finally, questions continue to linger about whether a protest over the video ever took place outside the diplomatic post in Benghazi before the attack. The Washington Post, quoting eyewitnesses, reported on Sept. 12:

By late Tuesday evening, as many as 50 heavily armed militants had gathered outside its high walls.
They joined protesters outside the consulate who were demonstrating against an American movie that they believed denigrated the prophet Muhammad. But according to one witness, the new arrivals neither chanted slogans nor carried banners….The gunmen soon opened fire, entered the compound and set the consulate’s buildings aflame.

The article also said:

The first protesters had showed up around noon. Wanis al-Sharif, the deputy Libyan interior minister, said in an interview that the demonstrators were angered by a low-budget American film that portrayed the prophet Muhammad in a blasphemous manner. As the day wore on, Sharif said, the anger escalated and people with weapons infiltrated the crowd.

However, questions have been raised about Sharif’s credibility as a source. In the aftermath of the incident, he was removed from his post. The State Department said last week that the street outside the compound had been quiet during the day. This raises the possibility that a crowd of people gathered — or protested — after militants attacked. The compound was later looted.

An article in The New York Times this week muddied the waters further, reporting there was no protest but the attack was in response to the video:

To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier. And it is an explanation that tracks with their history as members of a local militant group determined to protect Libya from Western influence.

The Bottom Line

In reviewing the documentation again, we see little reason to change our initial assessment.

Obama is correct that, in the day or two after the attack, he did use phrasing such as “act of terror,” though it was more vague than he implied in the debate. Moreover, he then dropped the phrase and for at least a week the administration pushed a narrative that tied the attack as a spontaneous reaction to the video, rather than a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, Romney is correct that it took at least two weeks for Obama to forthrightly call it a terrorist attack (a statement that came via his spokesman).

The president’s desire to reach back to his initial “act of terror” statements appears to be an effort to mitigate that politically uncomfortable fact.

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VIDEO: Glenn Kessler looks at some of the key moments in Tuesday’s debate to explain the truth — or mistruths — behind them on The Fold.

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