We were all waiting for it. The question about Libya. We’d been following the story as it had evolved over the past month. Did Obama know it was a terrorist attack from the beginning, and attribute it to an out-of-control protest over a YouTube video? Or, did he really think it was indeed a reaction to a video, long after the world – including the Libyan government – recognized it as a terrorist attack? Was he complicit in a cover-up because the killing of bin Laden was supposed to be the death of al Qaeda, and a terrorist attack would be a political disaster weeks before the presidential election? Or, is his administration so incompetent that as commander in chief he didn’t know that one of our foreign diplomatic posts (in a Middle Eastern hot-bed) was the site of a terrorist attack on the anniversary of the horrific 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? Either way, it could not be good for the President.
The question finally came in the last third of the debate:
QUESTION: “We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans.
Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?”
The question probably took this form because Joe Biden had denied any knowledge of the request for extra security last week in the vice presidential debate and because earlier this week Hillary Clinton formally accepted responsibility for what happened in Benghazi on September 11.
Obama began his response by talking about diplomats in general, his concern for “these folks” and their families, his instructions (upon hearing of the attacks) to beef up security, and how we would “make sure folks are held accountable and it doesn’t happen again.” He concluded by criticizing Romney for issuing a press release too soon after the attack, and by congratulating himself for going after al Qaeda and bin Laden. Obama did not answer the question. Consistent with his typical M.O., he dodged, he redirected, and he launched an offense. But the genie was out of the bottle. The door was open to talk about this whole Libya debacle.
Romney expressed his sympathy for the families, then cut to the heart of the matter:
ROMNEY: “There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration, or actually whether it was a terrorist attack. And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people. Whether there was some misleading, or instead whether we just didn’t know what happened, you have to ask yourself why didn’t we know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations went on TV to say that this was a demonstration. How could we have not known?”
He went on to express his distress over the real and symbolic significance of the President’s leaving for political fundraising events the day after the assassination of our ambassador (the first in over 30 years) and three other Americans, when he needed to be sorting out the details of this international situation. Romney said that Obama’s reaction to this event has called into question his policies in the Middle East – policies that began with an apology tour and are based on “leading from behind.”
At this point Candy Crowley posed a follow-up question to Obama regarding the secretary of state’s accepting responsibility for what happened in Benghazi.
Obama praised Secretary Clinton, noting that she works for him, so, as President, he is responsible. He went on (underlines mine):
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.
And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.
And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.”
Hmm. Righteous indignation. It’s often been said that the best defense is a good offense. Diversion.
It was at this point that Romney tried to establish for the record exactly what Obama had said and was saying. Did he identify the assault on the American team as a terrorist attack from the beginning as he just said, and then spend the next two weeks attributing it all to a video? Obama’s partner in the debate, Candy Crowley, jumped in to defend the President with the transcript of the September 12 Rose Garden statement. (And isn’t it curious that Obama said, “Get the transcript” and Candy has it in hand?)
Let’s look at that statement. It’s just over 5 min – in video form on the White House website, with the text shown on the screen as Obama is speaking. (Click on White House website above, or here to read text and see embedded video.)
Obama begins by announcing the deaths of the four Americans, condemning the attack, and pledging to bring the killers to justice. He follows by referencing America’s religious freedom (presumedly because of the linking to the anti-Muslim video):
“Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”
Obama goes on to describe Ambassador Stevens’s career in Libya. Then he speaks about the day before – the anniversary of 9/11 – when he mourned with the families of the victims, went to Arlington Cemetery to visit the graves of troops who died in Iraq and Afganistan, and spoke with wounded warriors at Walter Reed Hospital. He acknowledges the ultimate sacrifice made by civilians and the military. It is in this context that the reference to “acts of terror” is made:
“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.”
As you listen to the statement, it seems clear that “acts of terror” refers to the original 9/11 attack on America and the resulting deaths from the war that followed.
“Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.”
Was Obama saying that, in addition, these four Americans were the victims of an act of terror? It’s possible to interpret it that way. As details unfold, it’s not unlikely that he knew what had happened and was deliberately creating some ambiguity. In light of what followed in the subsequent two weeks, to contend in the debate that he acknowledged it from the beginning as a “terrorist attack” (Romney’s words) is deceptive.
Following that Rose Garden statement, Obama and Clinton appeared in an ad on Arab TV (at a cost of about $70,000 to the tax payers) denouncing the YouTube video and proclaiming the American value of religious tolerance.
The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. went on 5 Sunday talk shows blaming the video for the tragedy.
Jay Carney attributed the attack to the video.
And Obama, two weeks after the attack, denounced the video in his UN address, but did not acknowledge the assault on the consulate as a terrorist act.
Now, in the second presidential debate, Obama claims that he identified the attack as an “act of terror” from the day after the attack. When the matter is pressed further will he argue that “act of terror” is not the same as “terrorist attack”?
Are we going to resort to semantics? Play word games to evade the truth? Most of us remember the infamous words of Bill Clinton when he lied to the grand jury in the Monica Lewinski scandal: “It depends on what the meaning of is is.” No, it does not depend on the nuances of words or ambiguity that you may rely on to cover lies. The truth has its basis in facts and reality. So, Mr. President, are you lying to us now, or were you lying to us then?
This ad released by American Crossroads sums it up: