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Obama Misleads on the Libya Scandal

Romney stumbles in his response.

8:10 AM, Oct 17, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Hempstead, N.Y.  
The second 2012 presidential debate featured a sharper Barack Obama, a series of tough exchanges, and one memorable back-and-forth on Libya. And just as Joe Biden’s answers on Libya in the vice presidential debate drove several days of news, the discussion of Libya Tuesday night will be central to the presidential contest over the next week.

Official portrait of Barack Obama

There are several reasons for this: Obama’s answer on Libya was highly misleading; Romney stumbled in his response; the debate moderator fact-checked Romney during the debate but later acknowledged his broader point was correct; the administration hasn’t even begun to answer the questions at the center of the controversy; and the debate next Monday will focus on foreign policy.

Here’s the irony: Mitt Romney flubbed his response to the Libya question, and to average voters it probably seemed as though President Obama handled the exchange well. But the persistence of Libya as an issue, and the inability of the Obama administration to reconcile its early narrative with, well, reality—means that the issue is certain to help Romney and hurt Obama. And the fact that Romney’s answer was inartful virtually ensures the exchange will get more attention than it would have if the only mistake had been Obama’s.

The question itself focused on the first part of the growing two-part scandal – inadequate security before the attacks, not the inaccuracy of the story the administration told after them. A voter named Carey Ladka said that he and some friends were discussing Libya and they were struck by “reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans.” His question: “Who was it that denied enhanced security, and why?

Obama didn’t answer. “Well, let me, first of all, talk about our diplomats, because they serve all around the world and do an incredible job in a very dangerous situation.” After explaining that he was committed to getting to the bottom of the story, Obama accused Romney of politicizing the debate with his initial statement.

Romney pointed out some of the flaws in the administration’s narrative, he strongly suggested that the top Obama officials knew they were peddling a false story. “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 – I think 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 not have known?”

Obama took great exception to Romney’s answer and responded with indignation, expressing contempt for even the suggestion that his administration might be playing politics. He suggested, contrary to Romney’s claims, that the administration had said from the outset that the Benghazi assault was a terrorist attack. SW“The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and 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.”

When he finished, Romney saw an opening. “I think it’s just interesting the president just said something, which is that on the day after the attack he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.”

Obama interrupted: “That’s what I said.”

Romney responded with disbelief. “You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration?”

The two men went back and forth about Obama’s words on September 12. Romney seemed unaware than Obama had said anything resembling what he was claiming and Obama was mischaracterizing what he'd actually said. Romney: “I want to make sure we got that for the record.” Obama: “Get the transcript.”

Then moderator Candy Crowley jumped in to settle the issue. “He did, sir,” she said, addressing Romney. “So let me call it an act of terror in the Rose Garden. He used the word.”

Obama was delighted. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Some of the “undecided” voters in the debate hall applauded.

Crowley reiterated her point. “He did call it an act of terror.”

Romney tried to regain his footing, but he clearly didn’t trust himself. “It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group,” he said. “And to suggest – am I incorrect in that regard?”

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