Clashes over the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, one of the most contentious foreign policy disputes in the presidential race, provided high drama in Tuesday’s debate, but both President Obama and rival Mitt Romney omitted important details about the US reaction and investigation of the siege that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
And neither man answered the question posed by a undecided voter in the audience at Hofstra University.
Romney said the president waited two weeks to label the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11 an act of terrorism. Obama rebutted the charge by pointing to his address the day afterward at the White House, in which he used that very phrase.
Romney and Republicans have suggested the Obama administration deliberately misled the public about the nature of the attack for political reasons.
“They’re trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, that [in] the Mideast, the wars are receding and Al Qaeda has been dismantled, and to admit that our embassy was attacked by Al Qaeda operatives . . . undercuts that narrative,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Democrats counter that the fog of war necessitates a thorough review of the attack, one that will not only take time but will encompass shifting variables and intelligence.
Obama declared on Sept. 12 that “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.”
But during the same address, Obama also referenced a crucial point that the administration had initially been building into its narrative of the attack, that heavily armed militias had hijacked a protest against an online video mocking the Muslim prophet Mohammed.
“We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” Obama added during remarks in the White House Rose Garden.
Before the Benghazi attack, Egyptian protesters angered by the video, which was made in California, had climbed the wall of the US Embassy in Cairo and burned an American flag.
Early reports from the administration cautioned Americans not to jump to conclusions about the Benghazi attack. But on Sept. 16, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice appeared on multiple political talk shows, including NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where she characterized the Benghazi attack as “a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.”
During a congressional hearing last week, State Department officials rejected that account, saying there was no video protest in Benghazi.
While Obama did call the attack an act of terror almost right away, for days afterward his administration provided an account of events in Benghazi that proved false.
The debate question came from a man named Kerry Ladka, who said he and his co-workers wondered who had denied a request for additional security in Libya and why.
Obama did not directly answer the question about who denied the request, nor did Romney during his follow-up. Vice President Joe Biden said during his debate last week with Romney running mate Paul Ryan that the White House did not know about the request, an explanation Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported on Tuesday.
“I take responsibility” for security at American outposts, Clinton told CNN in Peru. “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.’’
“Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job,” Obama said during the debate, responding to Clinton’s remarks. “But she works for me. I’m the president and I’m always responsible.”
Obama then used the voter’s question to blast Romney for his early reaction to the violence in Libya.
“While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points, and that’s not how a commander in chief operates,” Obama said. “You don’t turn national security into a political issue. Certainly not right when it’s happening.”
In a statement received by the Globe late Sept. 11, Romney said, “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Romney’s criticism was based on a statement that came not from the White House or the State Department but from the US Embassy in Cairo, which condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” The embassy statement was not a response to violence but was issued on the morning of Sept. 11, before the protest there or the attack in Benghazi.
Romney countered during the debate Tuesday that it was Obama who made a political move in the immediate aftermath, flying to Las Vegas for a fund-raiser after delivering the remarks about the Libya attack.Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.