Last night at the Second Presidential Debate, the focus was mostly on the economy and related domestic issues. In the last half of the debate, the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, finally turned the questioning to Libya and the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi. Responding first to a question from the crowd at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, the President defended his administration and took ultimate responsibility for security at America’s far-flung diplomatic missions. This is in contrast to recent statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where she acknowledges that the security of American diplomatic personnel is her responsibility. When Candy Crowley asked the de rigueur question–asked ever since President Harry S. Truman prominently displayed “The Buck Stops Here” sign on his Oval Office desk in the White House–Obama did not equivocate, but instead accepted presidential responsibility. You can access the full debate transcript, but here is the question from audience member, Kerry Ladka, followed by key excerpts of the lengthy exchange:
QUESTION: This question actually comes from a brain trust of my friends at Global Telecom Supply (ph) in Minneola yesterday.
QUESTION: We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?
OBAMA: Well, let me first of all talk about our diplomats, because they serve all around the world and do an incredible job in a very dangerous situation. And these aren’t just representatives of the United States, they are my representatives. I send them there, oftentimes into harm’s way. I know these folks and I know their families. So, nobody is more concerned about their safety and security than I am. So, as soon as we found out that the Benghazi consulate was being overrun, I was on the phone with my national security team and I gave them three instructions.
Number one, beef up our security and procedures, not just in Libya, but at every embassy and consulate in the region.
Number two, investigate exactly what happened, regardless of where the facts lead us, to make sure folks are held accountable and it doesn’t happen again.
And number three, we are going to find out who did this and we’re going to hunt them down, because one of the things that I’ve said throughout my presidency is when folks mess with Americans, we go after them.
At this point, the President sharply turned the issue back on Romney, pointing out how his Republican challenger had prematurely criticized the administration immediately, and before the facts were known. Moreover, the President made it clear that Romney had attempted to exploit the tragedy for political purposes–as AI has reported previously–particularly the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and ex-Navy SEAL, Glen Doherty, two of the four Americans killed in the attack…
OBAMA: Now, Governor Romney had a very different response. 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. You don’t turn national security into a political issue. Certainly not right when it’s happening. And people…not everybody agrees with some of the decisions I’ve made. But when it comes to our national security, I mean what I say. I said I’d end the war in Libya…in…in Iraq, and I did.
I said that we’d go after al Qaeda and bin Laden: we have. I said we’d transition out of Afghanistan, and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security: that’s what I’m doing. And when it comes to this issue, when I say that we are going to find out exactly what happened: everybody will be held accountable. And I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home. You know that I mean what I say.
From there, the debate turned tense and testy, as Republican challenger, Mitt Romney appeared to seize on the overall issue of the handling of the deadly attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th, that left four Americans dead, including our Ambassador, Chris Stevens. He quickly launched into an attack on the President accusing him of failing to recognize that the attack was conducted by terrorists.
CROWLEY: Mr. President, I’m going to move us along. Governor?
ROMNEY: Thank you Kerry for your question, it’s an important one. And…and I…I think the president just said, correctly, that the buck does stop at his desk and…and he takes responsibility for…for that…for the failure in providing those security resources, and…and those terrible things may well happen from time to time. I…I’m…I feel very deeply sympathetic for the families of those who lost loved ones. And today there’s a memorial service for one of those that was lost in this tragedy. We…we think of their families and care for them deeply. There were other issues associated with this…with this tragedy. There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration, or actually whether it was a terrorist attack.
Of course, Romney conveniently failed to note that Congressional Republicans (including his Vice Presidential running-mate, Paul Ryan) have consistently cut money from the Federal Budget, which the Administration specifically requested to bolster defenseof our foreign diplomats and American embassies and consulates abroad! Romney continued his theme that the President was weak on foreign policy and—once again—bringing up the lie that Obama had conducted an “apology tour” overseas, as if somehow atoning for past American sins. A lie told without any evidence or substance in fact and one that has been widely discredited by fact-checkers in the media…but echoed—nevertheless—by pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing’s propaganda ministry, Fox News.
ROMNEY: 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. Whether there was some misleading, or instead whether we just didn’t know what happened, you have to ask yourself why didn’t we know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations went on TV to say that this was a demonstration. How could we have not known?
But I find more troubling than this, that on – on the day following the assassination of the United States ambassador, the first time that’s happened since 1979, when – when we have four Americans killed there, when apparently we didn’t know what happened, that the president, the day after that happened, flies to Las Vegas for a political fund-raiser, then the next day to Colorado for another event, other political event.
I think these – these actions taken by a president and a leader have symbolic significance and perhaps even material significance in that you’d hope that during that time we could call in the people who were actually eyewitnesses. We’ve read their accounts now about what happened. It was very clear this was not a demonstration. This was an attack by terrorists.
And this calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East. Look what’s happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and – and Israel, the president said that – that he was going to put daylight between us and Israel.
We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb. Syria – Syria’s not just a tragedy of 30,000 civilians being killed by a military, but also a strategic – strategically significant player for America.
The president’s policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and – and – and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.
At this point, the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley began to wind down the questioning on this issue…she thought.
CROWLEY: Because we’re – we’re closing in, I want to still get a lot of people in. I want to ask you something, Mr. President, and then have the governor just quickly.
Your secretary of state, as I’m sure you know, has said that she takes full responsibility for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Does the buck stop with your secretary of state as far as what went on here?
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’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do.
The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in 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.
And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.
After the President’s powerful response to Romney’s accusations, Romney just plain ‘stepped in it’ by leveling a charge in a ill-conceived attempt at what we have all come to know as a “gotcha moment.” Romney tried to make the President out to be a liar on the issue of when the Administration acknowledged that the consulate attack was an act of terrorism. His attempt backfired and he was called out—not only by the President, but also by the moderator, who performed a rare debate moment of instant ‘fact checking.’
CROWLEY: Governor, if you want to…
ROMNEY: Yes, I – I…
CROWLEY: … quickly to this please.
ROMNEY: I – I think interesting the president just said something which – which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That’s what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.
ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It – it – it – he did in fact, sir. So let me – let me call it “an act of terror”…
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He – he did call it an act of terror.
Here is the You Tube Video, which clearly shows that the President called the attack “an act of terror.” The rest of the exchange became muddled, but the impression it clearly left is that Romney was flummoxed in his clumsy and snarky attempt to portray the President as a liar. Instead, Romney came out the loser in this instance and certainly did nothing to bolster his own foreign policy knowledge or credentials, nor did he succeed in tearing down the President’s substantial polling advantage on national defense or foreign affairs.
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