Is an ‘act of terror’ a ‘terrorist attack’?

President Obama: “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.”



President Obama used an ambiguous phrase that was more or less technically correct to misleadingly answer Gov. Romney’s charge that the administration took two weeks to name the Benghazi embassy violence as a terrorist attack.

The Facts

During the Oct. 16 presidential debate, Romney charged that the administration took days to call the incident at the Benghazi consulate a terrorist attack:


MR. ROMNEY:  There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack. And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack, and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people.


Romney continued by questioning the president’s foreign policy.  The debate moderator followed with an anticipated question to the president about whether the responsibility for the attack rested with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  President Obama’s response contained a statement related to Romney’s charge (bold emphasis added):


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible. And that’s why nobody is more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I did (sic).

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. And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.


From the president’s Rose Garden speech on Sept. 12 (bold emphasis added):


Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourned with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.

As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.

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.  Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.  We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.  And make no mistake, justice will be done.


President Obama has three clear opportunities over the full course of his Rose Garden speech to designate the Benghazi assault as a terrorist attack. The only reference to terrorism comes on the heels of Mr. Obama’s reference to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center towers.


Analyzing the Rhetoric

Mr. Obama’s answer to the moderator’s question about Clinton definitely appears designed to answer Romney’s attack about the administration’s slow acknowledgment that the attack was carried out by terrorists.  The president begins the relevant paragraph by addressing Romney by his title.
But does the president actually answer the charge?  Mr. Obama does not say that he called the Benghazi violence a “terrorist attack.”  Instead, he says he called it an act of terrorism.  The latter is compatible with the original narrative that the Benghazi attack represented escalating violence from a protest of an American YouTube video.  The former is a stretch at best in that role.

Compounding the president’s problem, his Rose Garden statement passes up clear opportunities to call the events in Benghazi a terrorist attack or even just an act of terrorism.  In referring directly to the Benghazi violence, Mr. Obama calls it “an attack,” “this outrageous and shocking attack,” “this attack” and finally “this terrible act.”  The sole use of the term “terrorist” occurs during the segment where he was recalling the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.  His reference to “acts of terror” in that context stays consonant with not knowing whether terrorists were responsible or not.

Still, the statement carries enough ambiguity to offer the president a charitable interpretation.  It’s within reason to claim he was calling the Benghazi violence “acts of terror” even if he did not blame those acts on terrorists but rather on a crowd incensed by a perceived insult to its religion.  And it’s worth noting, as the moderator of the debate duly pointed out, that the president had referenced the out-of-control protest idea during his Rose Garden speech.

To summarize, Mr. Obama answered Romney with a statement that was close to accurate by a charitable interpretation but which did not really answer Romney’s charge.  Instead, the president’s answer deflected attention from the facts while attempting to focus attention on an implied inaccuracy in Romney’s claim.


Additional Notes

Both candidates have law degrees, which came to the fore as Romney tried to cross-examine Mr. Obama.  Romney tried to get the president to affirm he was saying he had called identified the Benghazi attack as a “terrorist attack” in his Rose Garden speech.  The president obliquely demurred, making no effort to clarify his intent.

It’s worth also mentioning here Candy Crowley’s role as moderator.  Crowley promptly defended the president when Romney tried his cross-examination.  Crowley affirmed that Mr. Obama was right in saying he called the Benghazi violence “acts of terror.”  As noted above, that determination involves granting the president some benefit of the doubt.  Crowley apparently realized she had made a move that would easily pass as partisan, so she followed up by trying to split the difference:  She said the administration had also reinforced the idea of a protest gone out of control.  The result was a moderator with an excessive role in the discussion.  Crowley’s actions probably increased the appearance of bias for most people.

Update, 10/17/2012, 1:30 a.m.
Via Politico and Dylan Byers:


After the debate, even Crowley seemed to acknowledge that she had erred. Romney was “right in the main” but “picked the wrong word,” she said on CNN.



Transcript of the Second Presidential Debate in Hempstead, N.Y.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Oct. 2012.

Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President on the Deaths of U.S. Embassy Staff in Libya.”The White House. The White House, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Oct. 2012.


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