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For weeks, Republicans have been hammering the Obama administration for allegedly concealing the true nature of the attack in Libya that claimed the life of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. During the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney charged that "it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
Obama had bristled at the idea that his administration had played politics with the attack. He called the suggestion "offensive".
Obama: "The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in 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."
Romney: "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."
Obama: "That's what I said."
Romney: "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?"
Obama: "Please proceed, governor."
Romney: "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."
Obama: "Get the transcript."
We went to the transcript, and the president has a point. On September 12, the day after the attack, in the Rose Garden, Obama condemned the attack and said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation."
In the days since, some have parsed Obama's remarks and argued he didn't say the Benghazi attack was specifically an act of terror. However, given the overall context of his comments, it seems a fair conclusion that he was including the attack in the "acts of terror" that he said would never shake American resolve.
However, in the days that followed, the White House spokesman and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations suggested that the attack seemed to have taken advantage of a demonstration over an American-made video that disparaged Islam.
On Sept. 13, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "The protests we're seeing around the region are in reaction to this movie. They are not directly in reaction to any policy of the United States or the government of the United States or the people of the United States."
The next day, a State Department spokeswoman said, "We are very cautious about drawing any conclusions with regard to who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, whether it was premeditated." But she ended with this: "Obviously, there are plenty of people around the region citing this disgusting video as something that has been motivating."
On Sept. 16, five days after the attack, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said, "We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned."
On Sept. 20, Carney told reporters, "It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Our embassy was attacked violently, and the result was four deaths of American officials."
But that same day, Obama told an audience at a town hall meeting, "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."
It wasn’t until Sept. 21 that everyone in the administration as a whole stated publicly that the attack was planned and executed by a terrorist group.
Romney said it took the president 14 days before he called the Libya attack terror.
In fact, Obama described it in those terms the day after the attack. But in the days that followed, neither he nor all the members of his administration spoke consistently on the subject. There were many suggestions that the attack was part of demonstrations over an American-made video that disparaged Islam.
We rate the statement Half True.
After we published this item, we heard from readers that the president called the attack "an act of terror" two more times -- on Sept. 13 in Colorado and Sept. 14 in Nevada.
"As for the ones we lost last night: I want to assure you, we will bring their killers to justice," Obama said at a campaign event in Nevada. "And 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."
So as we noted in our original item, Romney is off the mark as it relates to the word "terror." But Obama contributed to the administration's mixed message when he spoke at the Univision Town Hall event on Sept. 20. A questioner asked: "We have reports that the White House said today that the attacks in Libya were a terrorist attack. Do you have information indicating that it was Iran, or al Qaeda was behind organizing the protests?"
Here is Obama’s reply:
"Well, we’re still doing an investigation, and there are going to be different circumstances in different countries. And so I don’t want to speak to something until we have all the information. 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."
So although Obama acknowledged the uncertainty, he emphasized the inflammatory video and the protest as contributing factors in the attack.
By mentioning the video, Obama drew attention away from the possibility that the attack had been a planned assault. This lies at the heart of the dispute over what Obama and his administration were saying in the days after the attack. The president had the chance to be more complete and direct in Florida, but the administration was continuing to focus on the response to the video.
Just four days earlier, Ambassador Rice downplayed the possibility that the attack was premeditated. The president’s words did not correct that impression.
So while Obama did use the word "terror," there is also some truth to Romney's point that it took many days for the administration to fully characterize the attack as the work of a terrorist group. So we're still rating this Half True.
Second presidential debate, Oct. 16, 2012
Mitt Romney campaign statement, "Obama's shifting account of the Benghazi attacks," via email, Oct. 17, 2012
White House, Remarks by the President on the Deaths of U.S. Embassy Staff in Libya, September 12, 2012
CNN, What the administration has said about Libya attack, October 2, 2012
Christian Science Monitor, State Department admits it knew Libya attack was terrorism, October 10, 2012
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