White House shifts spin on Benghazi assassination, downplays focus on anti-Islam video

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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White House officials are now insisting that President Barack Obama has always treated the Sept. 11 strike in Benghazi, Libya as a terrorist attack by jihadis.

“Well, first of all, Candy, as you know, the president called it an act of terror the day after it happened,” President Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod told CNN’s Candy Crowley Sept. 30.

The new pitch is the administration’s third effort to spin the shocking Sept. 11 attack, threatening to discredit President Barack Obama’s campaign-trail claim to foreign policy competence. (RELATED: Likely voters: U.S.-Muslim relations worse than 4 years ago)

Gov. Mitt Romney is citing the Benghazi attack to buttress his criticism of Obama’s Muslim-outreach policy, which has helped Islamic radicals use elections to win control of majority-Muslim countries including Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.

On Sept. 11, so-far-unidentified jihadis hit the lightly guarded and unfortified office in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity.

The attackers used machine guns, rocket launchers and mortars, and killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three officials during an attack that lasted several hours and targeted two separate facilities. (RELATED: Murdered US ambassador Chris Stevens had history of service, was enthusiastic about working with Libyan people)

The day after the attack, Obama spoke in the Rose Garden in ambiguous terms that did not include explicitly labeling it as a jihadi or terrorist attack.

“The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack,” Obama said.

“Yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks [in 2001] … And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi. … No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation [or] alter that character.”

That statement can be read as an acknowledgement that the Benghazi attack was a terror strike, just as the 9/11 terror attack was.

But over the following week, administration officials — including the president and his ambassador to the United Nations — spun the attack as a byproduct of a spontaneous riot caused by a “natural” reaction to a little-viewed YouTube video that ridiculed the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

On Sept 14, for example, White House press secretary Jay Carney repeatedly suggested the video prompted protests that led to the Benghazi attack.

“We have no information to suggest that it was a pre-planned attack,’ he said. “The unrest we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that Muslims, many Muslims, find offensive.”

On Sept. 16, Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, also blamed the video.

“What happened this week in Cairo, in Benghazi and in many other parts of the region … was a result, a direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated,” she claimed.


That successful spin helped minimize media and pubic attention on the GOP’s criticism of the president’s foreign policy, and instead shifted the focus towards the video and the police questioning of its producer. (RELATED: Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, says, ‘We’re quite popular in Libya’)

On Sept. 26 however, the White House gave ground and acknowledged the attack was launched by jihadi terrorists.

That election-season concession came amid a rush of media reports describing the jihadi groups, the lack of significant security at the facility, the withdrawal of nearly all embassy officials from Libya, U.S. intelligence assessments and the failure of an FBI investigation team to even fly into Libya by late September.

“The President — our position is, as reflected by the [National Counterterrorism Center] director, that it was a terrorist attack,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Sept. 26, 15 days after it had occurred.

“It is, I think by definition, a terrorist attack when there is a prolonged assault on an embassy with weapons,” he acknowledged.

Carney justified the administration’s changed language by saying the White House had learned more about the attack since Sept. 11.

“We made clear that our initial assessment and interim reports [blaming the video] were based on information that was available at the time,” he said.

However, Obama continues to downplay the jihadis’ role, perhaps because their involvement bolsters the GOP’s criticism of his Muslim outreach policy as unwise and ineffective.

Instead, Obama continues to campaign for re-election, minimizes his public comments on the attack and stresses the role by played by the video.

In his Sept 25 speech to the United Nations, he again highlighted the video’s supposed role.

“That is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. … It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well,” he said.

“There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There’s no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.”

That YouTube video was almost unknown until its existence was broadcast by an Islamist TV station in Egypt.

The TV station used the video’s existence to boost numbers at a planned Sept. 11 protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Despite effort by that embassy to denounce the video, the Cairo protesters invaded the embassy and burned the U.S. flag, shortly before a different group of jihadis attacked the Benghazi facilities in next-door Libya.

Under orthodox Islamic Sharia law, criticism of Muhammad or the Islamic god Allah is blasphemous and punishable by death.

There is minimal public support in Arab countries for free speech that criticizes Islam.

Numerous Arab politicians, including Egypt’s elected president and prime minister, have since tried to boost their support by calling for punishment of the video maker, and for restrictions on Western’s legal ability to discus and criticize Islam.

In numerous post-attack statements, Obama has sidestepped these calls for the establishment of blasphemy laws in the United States.

On Sept. 25, for example, he used his speech to the United Nations to declare that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

In that address, Obama defended free speech but urged “the voices of tolerance [to] rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

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