- - Friday, October 19, 2012

Tuesday night’s fierce argument during the presidential debate over Mr. Obama’s characterization of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is more than a matter of interpretation. Mr. Obama claimed that he named it an “act of terror” the day after the incident, on Sept. 12, 2012. Mitt Romney accused him of denying the nature of the attack and hiding for 14 days behind dubious claims that an internet video posted in June was responsible for inciting a spontaneous riot.

While Mr. Obama used the words “acts of terror” in his Sept. 12 speech, he did not say the Benghazi attack was such an act. He strains credulity in claiming that this generic phrase established the Libya event as a terrorist attack on the United States. He used the phrase only once in his 801-word address in the Rose Garden, and then as a generality. “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…We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act,” he said. Missing from the speech were the words “terrorist,” “premeditated,” or “planned” in reference to what we know was an attack by extremists with links to Al Qaeda. Intelligence officials told the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake that the U.S. knew that it was planned by al Qaeda affiliates within 24 hours.

Presidential equivocation in the face of terrorist aggression is a trait unique to Mr. Obama. On Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush gave a statement less than an hour after the first plane hit the North Tower. He told the country, “Today we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country…Terrorism against our nation will not stand.” The same day that the USS Cole was attacked by Al Qaeda in 2000, President Bill Clinton was prompt and forthright. “[A]n explosion claimed the lives of at least four sailors on one of our naval vessels, the USS Cole, this morning. … If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act.”

One of the first tasks presidential speechwriters undertake when drafting remarks is to read previous speeches on the topic. Mr. Obama’s writers would have known exactly what his predecessors said when explaining details surrounding Al Qaeda attacks to the nation. This means the departure from precedent in Mr. Obama’s language was intentional. Mr. Obama’s writers knew what they were not saying. It’s a reflection of a political calculation that has produced the policy under this administration to avoid talking about terrorists or what Mr. Bush termed the “war on terror.” Applied in this case, however, it made the president look behindhand.

The dearth of details about the latest intelligence and missing key words was also deliberate. Once drafted, presidential speeches go through a review process called “staffing” wherein relevant offices and agencies weigh in on content and suggest changes. One of the offices with the greatest clout in having changes made to speeches on intelligence or foreign policy is that of the Director of National Intelligence. Created as a result of the 9/11 Commission’s investigation into the failures that allowed the Sept. 11 attacks, the director is responsible for integrating intelligence to inform White House decisions. It’s telling that unlike the Obama administration’s later public assertions, Mr. Obama’s speech doesn’t claim that the attacks were the result of a spontaneous demonstration about a video. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) would not have cleared that claim. Neither would the State Department, who also should have been on the staffing list.

If the intelligence community knew from the beginning that the Libya attacks were not the result of a spontaneous demonstration, the White House would have known it as well. ODNI would have ensured it. Ambassador Patrick Kennedy called the incident a “terrorist attack” the same day as Mr. Obama’s speech. The State Department told Calif. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee that they monitored the attacks “almost in real-time.” If somehow the White House didn’t know, it would constitute a significant breakdown in the processes set up by the executive branch working with Congress to prevent another Sept. 11. It’s a major failure by the Obama administration either way.

The timing of Mr. Obama’s address, coming on the heels of an earlier statement the same day, was slow by historical standards. The question of why Mr. Obama waited to speak or issue a statement about the Benghazi attacks until the next day may lie in the significance of the anniversary for which he failed to prepare. Perhaps the administration simply didn’t want to talk about the Libya attacks until the date passed, in denial that another terrorist attack occurred on his watch. If this is the case, Mr. Obama’s criticism of what he terms Mr. Romney’s politicization of the Benghazi disaster starts looking like a distraction from the question of what took Mr. Obama so long to speak out on the attack.

As Peter Suderman detailed in Reason magazine, Mr. Obama’s memoir ‘Dreams from My Father’ repeatedly proves the president is prone to revising history to fit his vision of how events should have transpired. Claiming to have admitted early that the Benghazi attacks were an act of terrorism is his latest embellishment. It’s a shame Mr. Romney had to battle debate moderator Candy Crowley in addition to the president in his effort to get Mr. Obama to stick to the facts. The issue will likely flare up again in Monday night’s final presidential debate. Moderator Bob Schieffer would do well to learn from Ms. Crowley’s mistake and keep his oar to himself.

Anneke E. Green, assistant editorial page editor, researched and wrote speeches for President George W. Bush.

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