If You Ignore What He Said, Obama Never Said the Libya Attack Was Terrorism

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 17 2012 10:47 AM

If You Ignore What He Said, Obama Never Said the Libya Attack Was Terrorism

The best disgruntled conservative take on the Libya exchange -- sorry, almost done with this now -- comes from Steve Hayes, who helpfully provides a timeline of misleading Obama administration statements. I'm just not sure the timeline is helpful to Romney. For example:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

On September 18, one week after the attack, David Letterman asked Obama whether the attack was an act of war. The president once again invoked the video produced by a “shadowy character” and said “this caused great offense in much of the Muslim world.” He said nothing about a terrorist attack and tied the incidents in Benghazi directly to the film.

This is just completely misleading. Here's what Obama said, with emphasis.

You had a video that was released by somebody who lives here, sort of a shadowy character who -- who is an extremely offensive video directed at -- at Mohammed and Islam, making fun of the Prophet Mohammed. This caused great offence, uh, in much of the much of the Muslim world. Uh, but what also happened was extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies.
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Hayes says that Obama "said nothing about a terrorist attack," when Obama merely referred to "terrorists" and an "attack." Got that? There's a better case to make with the Univision quotes, which Hayes describes this way:

Obama is asked directly whether terrorists conducted the siege in Benghazi. He notes that there’s an investigation and declines to express an opinion about terrorism. He adds: “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.”

But the question wasn't exactly "did terrorists conduct the siege." The question was: "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?" Obama doesn't use the word "terrorism" in his answer, but he refers to "these elements that don’t have the same capacity that a bin Laden or core al Qaeda had, but can still cause a lot of damage." At no point in either interview does Obama suggest that there was a spontaneous protest unconnected to terror that simply turned violent.

If you want to know why, hours later, there's no video proving Romney right -- well, this is why. Obama was slipperly, but he never suggested the falsehood that the Libya attacks grew spontaneously out of a video protest. And neither, really, did the much-derided Susan Rice. Her post-attack tour of Sunday shows is the best evidence of the Obama administration muddying the story. But here's what she told ABC News

We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to -- or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in -- in the wake of the revolution in Libya are -- are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.

This was John McCain's response, which set the GOP's tone.

Most people don't bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to demonstrations. That was an act of terror.

Rice didn't say that a bunch of schmucks brought weapons to the protest. She suggested that the protest was used as a cover by extremists who had a plan. It turns out that she was half-wrong, and the attackers -- who did cite the video as a justification -- acted without a spontaneous protest covering their tracks. But the larger "Benghazi-gate" narrative was based on a bunch of partial readings of Obama statements and an obsession with the word "terrorism." Romney's decision to focus not on pre-attack security, but on the magic word, cost him the exchange. And it should have.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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