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.
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?”
Obama, with the instincts of a good poker player who had just won on a bad hand, urged Crowley to move to a different topic. “Candy, I’m happy to have a longer conversation about foreign policy,” he began, before Crowley, sensing where Obama was heading, said she, too, wanted to move the conversation along. “I’m happy to do that, too,” Obama said, adding moments later: “I just want to make sure that all those wonderful folks are going to have a chance to get some of their questions answered.”
And the debate moved on.
Obama’s answer was fundamentally dishonest. It’s true that he used the phrase “an act of terror” in his Rose Garden remarks on September 12. But his words were not specific to Benghazi. “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. The Obama campaign can claim that since the speech was given to address the events in Libya, his words were – indirectly, and at least by implication – describing the attack there.
But that’s not what the president said at the debate. He claimed that he stood in the Rose Garden and told the American people “that this was an act of terror.” No, he didn’t.
Obama obviously wanted viewers to believe that his administration was straightforward about the fact that the deaths in Benghazi were the result of a terrorist attack. The opposite is closer to the truth.
* On September 14, at the White House briefing, Jay Carney said: “Let’s be clear, these protests were in reaction to a video that had spread around the region.” And: “We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack.” And: “The cause of the unrest was a video.” And: “The reason why there is unrest is because of the film. This is in response to the film.” And: there was “unrest brought about by this offensive video.” And: “The unrest that we’ve seen is in reaction to a film which the United States government had no involvement, which we have denounced as offensive.”
Carney, asked specifically whether the film led to the violence in Benghazi, seemed to rule out terrorism: “What I’m saying is that we have no evidence at this time to suggest otherwise, that there was a preplanned or ulterior instigation behind that unrest.”
When a reporter asked Carney to respond to comments from Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, who had told reporters that the attack was a “terrorist attack organized and carried out by terrorists,” in the words of the reporter, Carney pushed back. “My point was that we don’t have and did not have concrete evidence to suggest that this was not in reaction to the film”
* That same afternoon, when Obama received the remains of the four Americans at Andrews Air Force Base, he spoke for several minutes and did not once refer to what happened in Benghazi as a terrorist attack.
* On September 16, in her appearances on political talk shows, Ambassador Susan Rice repeatedly downplayed the possibility that the Benghazi incident was a terrorist attack. “This was not a pre-planned, premeditated attack,” she declared.
* On September 17, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked directly whether the Benghazi assault was a terrorist attack. She responded: “I’m not going to put labels on this until we have a complete investigation.”
* 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.
* On September 20, 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.”
* On September 25, in an appearance on The View, Joy Behar asks Obama about Hillary Clinton’s acknowledgement that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack and asks if he agrees. Obama refuses to endorse her characterization. “We don’t have all the information yet so we are still gathering,” he says, allowing that it was not “just a mob action.”
Do these answers sounds like ones that would be given by an administration that had announced immediately – on September 12 – that the Benghazi attacks were indeed terrorist attacks?
Another question: If the Obama administration had declared early on that these were indeed terrorist attacks, as the president suggested Tuesday night, why did the media treat as newsworthy the acknowledgement of National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew Olsen on September 19 that the four Americans were killed “in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy?”
And another: If the Obama administration had in fact conceded that these were “terrorist attacks” early on, why was it big news when those words first passed Carney’s lips in a press gaggle on September 20. Here’s how Mark Landler of the New York Times led the pool report after reporters met with Carney. “The main headline from the gaggle was the White House’s description of the attacks on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi as a ‘terrorist attack.’ I’ve put that exchange at the top with the rest of the gaggle below it.”
At the debate Tuesday, Obama wasn’t the only one pretending the administration has been consistent in its descriptions of the Benghazi incident. In the spin room afterwards, when a foreign journalist asked top Obama adviser David Axelrod about Turkey, he turned the question back to Libya. “One interesting thing that happened tonight was that when the president said that he stood in the Rose Garden and called the attack on our consulate in Benghazi an ‘act of terror,’ Governor Romney said he didn’t,” Axelrod noted, using the same misleading formulation Obama had used during the debate itself. “And it took the moderator, Candy Crowley, to fact-check him and say, ‘No, actually he did.’”
But in comments on CNN after the debate, Crowley walked back her correction of Romney. “I heard the president’s speech at the time. I sort of reread a lot of stuff about Libya because I knew we’d probably get a Libya question so I wanted to be up on it. So I knew that the president had said: ‘These acts of terror won’t stand.’ Or whatever the whole quote was. And I think actually, you know, right after that, I did turn around and say, ‘But you are totally correct that they spent two weeks telling us this was about a tape and that there was this riot outside the Benghazi consulate – which there wasn’t. So [Romney] was right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word.’”
I asked Axelrod whether he had any involvement in briefing Susan Rice for her Sunday appearances.
“None,” he said.
Did anyone on the campaign?
“I have not talked to Susan Rice and I don’t know of anybody who did.”
I also asked Axelrod about the quality of the intelligence provided to the administration in the aftermath of the attacks and what the possible ramifications might be for top intelligence officials. He placed the blame for inaccurate narrative squarely on the intelligence community, but refused to speculate about potential consequences.
“If the intelligence was bad – if that’s what the intelligence was and we now know that the stories had to be revised, everybody acknowledges that – does this mean that somebody in the intelligence community should be fired over this? Someone should lose their job about this? The intelligence was bad, right?”
“Yes,” Axelrod responded. “Obviously the intelligence was not correct. But the nature of these things is that intelligence sometimes isn’t. Why that happened is of course a matter of review right now. So I’m not going to leap out there and comment on that.”
If the tone of some the post-debate analysis sounds familiar, there’s a reason. It’s an echo of the days after the 9/11 attacks in Benghazi, when Mitt Romney expressed himself poorly and the media focused on Romney rather than on the unrest in the Middle East or the inconsistencies already apparent in the Obama administration’s narrative.
It may be happening again. This is an argument Romney wins just by having it. Even if the ostensible focus of post-debate coverage remains Romney’s inartful response, the context for his comments is the Obama administration’s failure to tell the American people a straight story on Libya.
It’s not going away.