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What the President Said About Benghazi

What the President Said About Benghazi

By Tom Bevan - November 30, 2012

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice is under fire for going on several Sunday talk shows five days after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and providing apparently erroneous information to the public. But President Obama’s own public statements about Benghazi, made in three separate nationally televised interviews in the days after Rice’s appearances, were equally misleading and have received scarcely any attention.

In defending Rice from criticism from an array of Republicans, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Obama said at a November 15 press conference, "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me.”

The president was both lauded and criticized for attempting to shield Rice from the heat, but the invitation to scrutinize his role in informing – or misinforming -- the public about what happened in Libya on September 11 is one that should be accepted.

Obama’s first appearance in which he was asked about Benghazi came on Tuesday, September 18, just a week after the attack and two days after Rice’s appearance, on the "Late Show With David Letterman." By this time ample evidence was accumulating that showed the attack to be a preplanned assault carried out by an al-Qaeda affiliated organization -- and that there was no spontaneous protest outside the consulate the night of the attack over an anti-Mohammed video cited repeatedly by Rice and other administration officials.

Letterman asked Obama specifically about the Benghazi attack, and the president responded by bringing up the video. Here’s the exchange:

LETTERMAN: Now, I don’t understand, um, the ambassador to Libya killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Is this an act of war? Are we at war now? What happens here?

OBAMA: Here's what happened. ... You had a video that was released by somebody who lives here, sort of a shadowy character who -- who made an extremely offensive video directed at -- at Mohammed and Islam --

LETTERMAN: Making fun of the Prophet Mohammed.

OBAMA: Making fun of the Prophet Mohammed. And so, this caused great offense in much of the Muslim world. But what also happened, extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies, including the one, the consulate in Libya.

A bit later in his answer, Obama referenced the video again as the proximate cause for the attack in Benghazi. “As offensive as this video was -- and obviously, we denounced it, the United States government had nothing to do with it -- that’s never an excuse for violence,” he said.

Two days later, on September 20, at a forum hosted by the Spanish-language channel Univision, Obama again used the anti-Mohammed video to conflate the issue of protests in parts of the Arab world (where it was a driving factor) and the attack in Libya (where it wasn’t) and also to dodge a question about the lack of security in Benghazi and elsewhere on the anniversary of 9/11. Here is his exchange with Univision co-host Maria Elena Salinas:

SALINAS: Before we start, before talking about education and its future, we would like to talk about something that is happening right now in recent news. As we know, at the present time, 1,000 people are trying to get into the embassy in Pakistan, and we have seen protests, anti-American protests in thousands [sic] of countries.

We know in Libya, four Americans were killed. We know now that Ambassador Chris Stevens warned about security days before he was killed. Many people want to know whether -- if you expected so much anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world. And why wasn’t your administration better prepared with more security at our embassies on September 11?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, obviously we mourn the loss of the Americans who were killed in Benghazi. But I think it’s important to understand that that’s not representative of the attitudes of the Libyan people towards America, because they understand because of the incredible work that our diplomats did as well as our men and women in uniform, we liberated that country from a dictator who had terrorized them for 40 years. And Chris Stevens, the ambassador there, was one of the leaders of that process. So when he was killed, there were vigils in Libya but also in front of the White House expressing the deep sorrow that the Libyan people felt towards them.

What we’ve seen over the last week, week and a half, is something that actually we’ve seen in the past, where there is an offensive video or cartoon directed at the prophet Muhammad. And this is obviously something that then is used as an excuse by some to carry out inexcusable violent acts directed at Westerners or Americans.

Salinas subsequently asked Obama directly whether al-Qaeda was involved:

SALINAS: 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 --

SALINAS: Al-Qaeda?

OBAMA: Well, we don’t know yet. And so we’re going to continue to investigate this. We’ve insisted on and have received so far full cooperation from countries like Egypt and Libya and Tunisia in not only protecting our diplomatic posts, but also to make sure that we discover who, in fact, is trying to take advantage of this.

Although it’s not clear how strongly he stressed this point within the administration, former CIA Director David Petraeus testified on November 16 that his agency knew early on that an al-Qaeda-affiliated group was behind the attack in Benghazi.

Lastly, Obama was asked about Benghazi by co-host Joy Behar during his appearance on ABC’s daytime show "The View" on Tuesday, September 25:

BEHAR: OK, I want to talk about Libya for a second because on 9/11 of this past year our embassy was attacked there and we lost four people, including the ambassador, and it was reported that people just went crazy and wild because of this anti-Muslim movie, or anti-Mohammed, I guess, movie. But then I heard Hillary Clinton say it was an act of terrorism. Is it? What do you say?

OBAMA: Well, we’re still doing an investigation. There’s no doubt 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, and so we’re still gathering it. But what’s clear is that around the world, there are still a lot of threats out there.

Despite his assertion to Mitt Romney in the second presidential debate that he called Benghazi a terrorist attack in the Rose Garden on the day after it happened, Obama actually made a generic reference to “acts of terror” in that appearance. Yet two weeks later he was still unwilling to label Benghazi an orchestrated assault by a terrorist organization, even when asked a direct question.

Obama did start moving, finally, in that direction by noting that Benghazi “wasn’t just a mob action,” but that little word “just” is a bit of misdirection. By then, it seemed clear, which the president must have known, that there was no “mob action” at all in Benghazi.

When Obama taunted McCain and Graham to “go after” him on Libya, he added that he would be “happy to have that conversation.” That would be a discussion worth having. It's a discussion the public deserves -- and one that voters were probably entitled to before Election Day. 

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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