The Conversation

Why the Semantic Debate over Benghazi Will Continue

Is an "act of terror" the same thing as a terrorist attack? Is this just a tiresome semantic argument or is there more at stake here?

General Carter Ham, previous head of AFRICOM, says he reported to Sec. Panetta that a terrorist attack was taking place in Benghazi. O'Reilly asked President Obama if he had been told, during those first hours, that a terrorist attack was taking place. Obama would only say that he learned of an attack and refused to confirm that the word terrorism was used.

O'REILLY: -- did he tell you it was a terror attack?

OBAMA: Bill -- and what I'm -- I'm answering your question. What he said to me was, we've got an attack on our compound. We don't know yet...

O'REILLY: No terror attack?

OBAMA: -- we don't know yet who's doing it. Understand, by definition, Bill, when somebody is attacking our compound...

O'REILLY: Yes?

OBAMA: -- that's an act of terror, which is how I characterized it the day after it happened. So the -- so the question ends up being who, in fact, was attacking us?

First please notice that the President is fully engaged in this semantic debate. He's not, as Hillary did, saying it doesn't matter at this point. On the contrary, it's clear the President has a precise definition of terrorism in mind. It's worth exploring that definition and also asking why it matters if he is right.

Based on the President's words, any attack on the U.S. is an "act of terror" but it's not (according to the President) a terrorist attack unless we know who was involved. To put it another way, an "act of terror" is a reference to an attack, but a "terrorist attack" is a reference to an attacker.

This semantic difference helps explain why President Obama obliquely referred to "acts of terror" (note the plural) in the Rose Garden on September 12th. (This indirect statement came late in the speech after he had first referred to the attack as "senseless violence".) And yet, later the same day, President Obama gave an interview to 60 Minutes in which he said the following:

KROFT: “Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word ‘terrorism’ in connection with the Libya attack.”
OBAMA: “Right.”
KROFT: “Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?”
OBAMA: “Well, it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans.

Again, Obama himself says he is reserving the phrase "terrorist attack" because he does not know "what group was involved." This fits with the definition we've established in which terrorism can only be committed by known terrorists. Returning to his interview with O'Reilly, President Obama still seems to be arguing this was not a terrorist attack or not completely a terrorist attack [Emphasis added]:

OBAMA:  -- people -- that's -- people don't know at the very moment exactly why something like this happens.  And when you look at the videotape of this whole thing unfolding, this is not some systematic, well organized process.

He's suggesting these were not terrorists because they did not appear organized. He's not saying there was a spontaneous protest but he is suggesting the attackers were not pros.

OBAMA:  -- Bill, listen, I -- I -- I've gone through this and we have had multiple hearings on it.  What happens is you have an attack like this taking place and you have a mix of folks who are just troublemakers.  You have folks who have an ideological agenda.

Obama admits that some of the people involved had an ideological agenda, i.e. terrorists, but others were just "troublemakers." Troublemakers in this context are not terrorists even if they commit an act of terror.

The President is correct that there were probably several types of people on hand that night. People there did know about the video and some of them were undoubtedly angry about it. It's also true that extremist militias were becoming increasingly common in the vicinity and were looking for any excuse to take things to the next level against America as they had already done against other western outposts.

Clearly the Obama administration was eager to focus on one element of the attack--spontaneous anger at a video--and diminish the other--burgeoning extremism for which we were shamefully unprepared. That's why we heard so much about the video even as a list of prior attacks on western targets in Benghazi was cut from the talking points by the State Department. It's why Under Secretary Kennedy told Congress there was no specific threat though there were "hundreds" of intelligence community documents warning that an attack on the U.S. in Libya was becoming ever more likely?

The outcome in Benghazi had more to do with incompetent decision making at the State Department than with the nature of the attack itself. "Was it terrorism?" is something Obama can quibble over and Hillary can dismiss as wholly insignificant. The real underlying question is, "Was this deadly disaster preventable?" The Senate answered that question last month in the affirmative.

If effect, the State Department has been found responsible. It didn't do its job. What remains is the matter of how seriously this hurts those responsible. And in this sentencing phase of the ongoing public argument one explanation (spontaneous anger) is still better for the administration than the other (burgeoning extremism). Spontaneity suggests the event was "unpredictable," as Hillary Clinton claimed just last week. But a long list of escalating attacks, a stack of written warnings and a video system that no one bothered to install suggests something closer to negligence. Both are failures, but the former is a more forgivable while the latter comes across as gross incompetence. Given that these are there choices, it's not hard to see why President Obama and future candidate Hillary are still emphasizing one explanation over the other.


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