President Barack Obama regards the Sept. 11 assault on the American Consulate in Libya as a terrorist attack, the White House said on Wednesday, as Republicans questioned why the commander in chief has not said so publicly.
"It is certainly the case that it is our view as an administration, the president's view, that it was a terrorist attack," press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
"It is, I think by definition, a terrorist attack when there is a prolonged assault on an embassy with weapons," Carney said as Obama headed to Ohio for a campaign swing.
The head of the National Counterterrorism Center labeled the attack "terrorism" last week, as did Carney. Obama, asked about the issue on "The View" this week, did not explicitly agree but said the level of sophistication showed it wasn't just "a mob action." Republicans led by Mitt Romney have said the president needs to clarify whether he views it as a terrorist act.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Obama administration denounced the bloodshed but portrayed it as the result of violent demonstrations fueled by anger at an Internet video that insults Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Top officials played down the prospect that it could have been a planned attack by anti-American extremists. But top Republican and Democratic lawmakers quickly declared they believed it to be a planned terrorist attack. And the White House gradually shifted its version of events—though officials said the differing account reflected changing information about the attack.
"This administration has provided as much information as it has been able to," Carney said on Wednesday.
"The broader questions here about who participated, what led to the attack on the facility in Benghazi—all those questions are under investigation at two levels, by the FBI and by the Accountability Review Board established by Secretary Clinton to look at issues of security in Benghazi and security at other diplomatic facilities," he said. But "let's be clear, it was a terrorist attack and it was an inexcusable attack."
The Romney campaign criticized Carney's remarks, with spokesman Ryan Williams saying, "This is now the second time the White House press secretary has said something that President Obama has declined to admit."
"If the president thinks the tragic events in Libya were acts of terrorism, he should say so himself. Mitt Romney believes these tragic acts were terrorism and should be condemned as such," Williams said in a statement.
So is this just inside-the-Beltway word games? The American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three colleagues were killed. Does it matter how the attack gets labeled?
For two reasons, the answer is yes, albeit with one big caveat. First, formally designating the attack as terrorism allows the U.S. government to respond more forcefully—with intelligence and military means if necessary—than if this were merely judged to be an out-of-control demonstration. Second, what a president calls an act of violence can sometimes provide a window into how he will respond to it, or similar incidents in the future. The caveat is that an administration could privately declare the attack terrorism and get the same benefits. And of course a president's actions speak louder than words.