President Obama, remarks at a news conference, May 13, 2013
Once again, it appears that we must parse a few presidential words. We went through this question at length during the 2012 election, but perhaps a refresher course is in order.
Notably, during a debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, President Obama said that he immediately told the American people that the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya “was an act of terror.” But now he says he called it “an act of terrorism.”
Some readers may object to this continuing focus on words, but presidential aides spend a lot of time on words. Words have consequences. Is there a difference between “act of terror” and “act of terrorism”?
Immediately after the attack, the president three times used the phrase “act of terror” in public statements: “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.”
— Obama, Rose Garden, Sept. 12
“We want to send a message all around the world — anybody who would do us harm: No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America.”
— Obama, campaign event in Las Vegas, Sept. 13
“I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. It will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.”
— Obama, campaign event in Golden, Colo., Sept. 13
Here’s how we assessed those words back in October:
Note that in all three cases, the language is not as strong as Obama asserted in the debate. Obama declared that he said “that this was an act of terror.” But actually the president spoke in vague terms, usually wrapped in a patriotic fervor. One could presume he was speaking of the incident in Libya, but he did not affirmatively state that the American ambassador died because of an “act of terror.”
Some readers may think we are dancing on the head of pin here. The Fact Checker spent nine years as diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, and such nuances of phrasing are often very important. A president does not simply utter virtually the same phrase three times in two days about a major international incident without careful thought about the implications of each word.
The Fact Checker noted last week that this was an attack on what essentially was a secret CIA operation, which included rounding up weapons from the very people who may have attacked the facility.
Perhaps Obama, in his mind, thought this then was really “an act of war,” not a traditional terrorist attack, but he had not wanted to say that publicly. Or perhaps, as Republicans suggest, he did not want to spoil his campaign theme that terror groups such as al-Qaeda were on the run by conceding a terrorist attack had occurred on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Whatever the reason, when given repeated opportunities to forthrightly declare this was an “act of terrorism,” the president ducked the question.
For instance, on Sept. 12, immediately after the Rose Garden statement the day after the attack, Obama sat down with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes and acknowledged he purposely avoided the using the word “terrorism:”
KROFT: “Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word ‘terrorism’ in connection with the Libya attack.”
KROFT: “Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?”
OBAMA: “Well, it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans. And we are going to be working with the Libyan government to make sure that we bring these folks to justice, one way or the other.”
(You can view this segment of the interview below. A key question is what the president meant when he said “right.” Was this agreement with Kroft or just verbal acknowledgment? It is a bit in the eye of the beholder, but we lean toward agreement that he avoided using “terrorism.” For unknown reasons, CBS did not release this clip until just two days before the elections, and it attracted little notice at the time because Superstorm Sandy dominated the news.)
Eight days later, on Sept. 20, Obama was asked at a Univision town hall whether Benghazi was a terrorist attack related to al-Qaeda, after White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that “it is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”
QUESTION: “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: “Well, we’re still doing an investigation, and there are going to be different circumstances in different countries. And so I don’t want to speak to something until we have all the information. 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.”
(It is unclear whether Obama is ducking the “terrorism” question or answering one about al-Qaeda.)
Finally, during an interview on ABC’s “The View” on Sept. 25, Obama appeared to refuse to say it was a terrorist attack:
QUESTION: “It was reported that people just went crazy and wild because of this anti-Muslim movie — or anti-Muhammad, I guess, movie. But then I heard Hillary Clinton say that it was an act of terrorism. Is it? What do you say?”
OBAMA: “We are still doing an investigation. There is no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. Now, we don’t have all the information yet so we are still gathering.”
So, given three opportunities to affirmatively agree that the Benghazi attack was a terrorist attack, the president obfuscated or ducked the question.
In fact, as far as we can tell from combing through databases, Monday was the first time the president himself referred to Benghazi as an “act of terrorism.”
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House national security council, said in the case of “The View,” “the point of the question what about what happened, not what to call it.”
She also noted that President George W. Bush used the phrase “act of terror” while visiting victims of the Sept. 11 attacks in the hospital, and critics such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) have used that phrasing as well in speaking about terrorist attacks. (She provided citations.) “I don’t really accept the argument that we are somehow unique in that formulation,” she said.
Administration officials repeatedly have insisted that this is a distinction without much difference. “There was an issue about the definition of terrorism,” Carney said on October 10. “This is by definition an act of terror, as the President made clear.”
During the campaign, the president could just get away with claiming he said “act of terror,” since he did use those words — though not in the way he often claimed. It seemed like a bit of after-the-fact spin, but those were his actual words — to the surprise of Mitt Romney in the debate.
But the president’s claim that he said “act of terrorism” is taking revisionist history too far, given that he repeatedly refused to commit to that phrase when asked directly by reporters in the weeks after the attack. He appears to have gone out of his way to avoid saying it was a terrorist attack, so he has little standing to make that claim now.
Indeed, the initial unedited talking points did not call it an act of terrorism. Instead of pretending the right words were uttered, it would be far better to acknowledge that he was echoing what the intelligence community believed at the time–and that the administration’s phrasing could have been clearer and more forthright from the start.