Obama understatement on ‘Daily Show’: US response to deaths in Libya ‘not optimal’

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama told comedian Jon Stewart Thursday that the way his administration handled the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya was “not optimal.”

The understatement came during Obama’s election-trail conversation on Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which is built on sardonic and flippant humor.

“Here’s what I’ll say: If four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal. We’re going to fix it. All of it,” Obama said during the show’s Oct. 18 taping, according to press pool reporters from The Washington post and the Los Angeles Times who were along for the interview.

In what may be a policy shift, Obama hinted at a concession that the Benghazi attackers were linked to al-Qaida. “It’s true that al-Qaida is still active, at least sort of remnants of it are staging in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East,” he told Stewart, who is a supporter of Obama.

Stewart gently quizzed Obama about his reaction to the Sept. 11 assault on the Benghazi facility, which killed ambassador Chris Stevens, an aide and two guards.

Obama’s “not optimal” comment came after Stewart nudged him to acknowledge a management problem in his administration prior to the attack.

“Is part of the investigation helping the communication between these divisions? Not just what happened in Benghazi, but what happened within. Because I would say, even you would admit, it was not the optimal response, at least to the American people, as far as all of us being on the same page,” Stewart asked.

When Stewart later asked the president about “confusion in the administration” following the Benghazi attack, Obama retorted that “we weren’t confused about the fact that four Americans had been killed,” according to a press pool report.

“I wasn’t confused about the fact that we needed to ramp up diplomatic security around the world. … I wasn’t confused about the fact that we had to investigate exactly what happened so it gets fixed. … I wasn’t confused about the fact that we’re going to hunt down whoever did it,” he insisted.

Obama did not comment on the criticism that he has sought to obscure his policy failures by blaming the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Libya on a surprise protest. (OPINION: Asking the wrong questions about Libya)

During the weeks immediately following the attack, Obama’s aides suggested the attack was caused by a protest against a California-made YouTube video that mocked the Muslim prophet Mohammed, rather than being a planned attack by a militant jihadi group.

State Department officials have since said there was no protest prior to the attack.

Obama’s aides admitted Sept. 19 that the attack was a terror strike, but continue to insist the video may have provided part of the militants’ motivation.

Gov. Mitt Romney and other GOP advocates say Obama is using the claim about the video to distract attention from the growing power of Islamist and jihadi groups amid his Muslim outreach policy’s failures.

That policy was announced in Obama’s 2009 “new beginning” speech in Cairo, Egypt.

Obama’s acknowledgment to Stewart of al-Qaida groups’ activity in North Africa may reflect revised intelligence estimates, a new White House assessment or an election-trail concession to GOP criticisms.

During the “Daily Show” interview, Obama also blamed intelligence agencies and his deputies for the White House’s discordant response to the Benghazi attack.

“Every piece of information that we get, as we got it, we laid it out to the American people. The picture eventually gets fully filled in,” he said.

“The government is a big operation and any given time something screws up. And you make sure that you find out what’s broken and you fix it,” he said.

Obama also cited a need to comply with “international law” when he was asked how he protects national security.

“We’ve gone after al-Qaida and its leadership. … Sometimes you’ve got to make some tough calls,” he replied, “but you can do so in a way that’s consistent with international law and with American law.”

In other comments, Obama said he still wants to close the Guantanamo prison and blamed Congress for blocking him.

“I still want to close Guantanamo. We haven’t been able to get that through Congress,” he claimed.

When Stewart asked him to explain his national security policy, Obama responded that “whatever else I have done throughout the course of my presidency, the one thing that I’ve been absolutely clear about is that America’s security comes [first], and the American people need to know exactly how I make decisions when it comes to war, peace, security, and protecting Americans,” he insisted.

“And they will continue to get that over the next four years of my presidency.”

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