Obama dodges Benghazi bullet as debate descends into semantics

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama used his town hall appearance Tuesday to insist that his administration always considered the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi as “terrorism.”

“The day after the attack, governor [Romney], 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,” Obama said. “That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”

From there, the debate over whether Obama considered the attack terrorism descended into one over semantics as moderator Candy Crowley jumped in to back Obama, telling Romney that Obama “did in fact” use the phrase “act of terror” on September 12.

“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama implored the moderator.

She obliged. “He — he did call it an act of terror,” said Crowley.

Crowley’s peers at CNN backed her up.

“It was a mistake by Mitt Romney,” said CNN Wolf Blitzer.

“Candy fact-checked him in front of the American people,” said CNN’s John King.

However, the Rose Garden text — in combination with the administration’s actions in the subsequent two weeks — showed Romney’s larger criticism was accurate.

Obama’s Sept. 12 statement did use the phrase “acts of terror.”

“Yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks,“ Obama’s said in the Rose Garden. “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,” he said.

But during the following two weeks, he and his deputies refused to describe the attack as a terror strike, and instead repeatedly described the attack as a spontaneous protest to a little-known video critical of Islam’s prophet, Mohammad.

On Sept. 25, for example, Obama pitched this view during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly. “In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening… That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world,” he declared.

“I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity… The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” Obama declared.

The Benghazi attackers killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. They were armed with machine guns and mortars, and their assault came suddenly during a peaceful evening.

The questioner who kicked off the discussion Tuesday evening asked Obama “who was it that denied enhanced security and why?”

Obama responded by saying that “Governor Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points, and that’s not how a commander in chief operates.”

Additionally, Obama — for the first time — spoke of his culpability for the failures in Benghazi.

“I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home,” he said.

“The buck does stop at his desk,” agreed Romney. “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,” Romney said.