Despite numerous public events including a speech at the United Nations and two presidential debates, President Obama still hasn’t publicly and plainly acknowledged to Americans that terrorists killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on Sept. 11.
Others in his administration have said it, belatedly. But in the five weeks since the attack, Mr. Obama has skirted the issue, seemingly determined to avoid talking publicly about the nature of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
When Republican nominee Mitt Romney tried to pin down Mr. Obama in their second debate Tuesday on whether he publicly acknowledged the terrorism, the president said he had and told Mr. Romney to “get the transcript,” a reference to his comments on Sept. 12 at the White House about the attack. Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN intervened on the president’s behalf and declared that Mr. Obama had indeed called the attack “an act of terror” on Sept. 12.
But Ms. Crowley’s fact-checking was tilted toward the president. What he actually said on Sept. 12 was: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation” — a generic declaration, rather than a specific explanation for what happened in Benghazi.
He also said at the time that the U.S. would “reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” a reference to the Internet anti-Islam video that the administration was blaming at the time for Arab protests against America, including the violence in Libya.
“By just saying ‘go to the transcript,’ the president could leave the impression that he has been consistent in addressing the attack on Benghazi all along,” said James Carafano, director of foreign policy studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The responses from the administration have been mixed and muddled. The question is, is this because they can’t properly manage the flow of information, or are they just dodging and tacking to put the president in the best light for re-election? That is the core issue because it brings in question his credibility as commander in chief.”
The president now is pointing to his comments of Sept. 12 as proof that he and his administration didn’t mislead the public about the nature of the Libya attack.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that the president believed it was a terrorist attack even though, at the time, intelligence officials were telling him that the attack appeared to stem from protests of the video. He also said that whether it was a spontaneous protest or an organized attack, it should be considered a terrorist act when four Americans are killed.
“That’s why the president referred to it as an act of terror the day after,” Mr. Carney said.
He said that the president not only called the attack terrorism in his Sept. 12 Rose Garden speech, but did so twice more in the days that followed.
“The issue … has always been for him to find out who was responsible, to track them down and to bring them to justice,” the spokesman said.
But for at least two weeks afterward, administration officials continued to portray the assault as an outgrowth of the protests against the video, rather than a terrorist act. Though even since officials did acknowledge that terrorists killed the four Americans, Mr. Obama largely has avoided discussing the attack in the context of terrorism.
On Sept. 14, for example, Mr. Carney said, “We don’t have and did not have concrete evidence to suggest that this was not in reaction to the film.” On the same day, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on the attack. Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said after the briefing that he understood that the attack was planned and premeditated. Another U.S. official said: “Everything I have seen says this was a highly armed, organized attack. Not a mob reacting to the movie.”
But the administration’s public stance remained unchanged: On Sept. 16, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, gave several TV interviews about the attack. “Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo,” she said.
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.”