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On Sept. 20, as the president was flying to Miami on Air Force One, Mr. Carney told reporters on the plane that Benghazi “was a terrorist attack.” A New York Times writer who was serving as the pool reporter on the trip thought the information was so important that he called a colleague from Air Force One in midflight, a rare occurrence, to alert other reporters about Mr. Carney’s statement.

But 75 minutes later, when Mr. Obama appeared on camera in a town-hall meeting hosted by Univision, the president wouldn’t discuss terrorism.

“I don’t want to speak to something until we have all the information,” Mr. Obama said. “What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests.”

On Sept. 24, Mr. Obama was asked about the Libya attack during a taping of ABC-TV’s “The View.” He edged a little closer to terrorism as an explanation but wouldn’t use the word “terror” on camera.

“There’s no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action,” the president said.

The next day, Mr. Obama gave a speech at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. He spoke at length about Stevens, the reprehensible anti-Islam video and the need for religious tolerance. He did not mention terrorism.

At the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11, Vice President Joseph R. Biden tried to distance the White House from the Libya attack, saying he and the president didn’t know about requests by U.S. personnel in Libya for more protection prior to the assault.

“We weren’t told they wanted more security there,” Mr. Biden said. “We did not know they wanted more security there.”

On Friday, a reporter asked Mr. Carney whether, in light of the vice president’s comments, “the buck stops with the State Department.” Mr. Carney said security staffing decisions “are appropriately made at the State Department.” He also said the president had received “no actionable intelligence” prior to the attack.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the buck did indeed stop with her.

“I take responsibility,” she said. “The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.”

On Tuesday, at the second debate with Mr. Romney, the president followed up on Mrs. Clinton’s comments.

“Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job, but she works for me,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m the president, and I’m always responsible.”

Then he told Mr. Romney that any suggestion that his administration was playing politics with the Libya episode or misleading the public was “offensive.”