“The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism.”
— President Obama, remarks at a news conference, May 13, 2013
Once again, it appears that we must parse a few presidential words. We went through this question at length during the 2012 election, but perhaps a refresher course is in order.
Notably, during a debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, President Obama said that he immediately told the American people that the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya “was an act of terror.” But now he says he called it “an act of terrorism.”
Some readers may object to this continuing focus on words, but presidential aides spend a lot of time on words. Words have consequences. Is there a difference between “act of terror” and “act of terrorism”?
Immediately after the attack, the president three times used the phrase “act of terror” in public statements:
“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.”
— Obama, Rose Garden, Sept. 12
“We want to send a message all around the world — anybody who would do us harm: No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America.”
— Obama, campaign event in Las Vegas, Sept. 13
“I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished. It will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.”
— Obama, campaign event in Golden, Colo., Sept. 13
Here’s how we assessed those words back in October:
Note that in all three cases, the language is not as strong as Obama asserted in the debate. Obama declared that he said “that this was an act of terror.” But actually the president spoke in vague terms, usually wrapped in a patriotic fervor. One could presume he was speaking of the incident in Libya, but he did not affirmatively state that the American ambassador died because of an “act of terror.”
Some readers may think we are dancing on the head of pin here. The Fact Checker spent nine years as diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, and such nuances of phrasing are often very important. A president does not simply utter virtually the same phrase three times in two days about a major international incident without careful thought about the implications of each word.
The Fact Checker noted last week that this was an attack on what essentially was a secret CIA operation, which included rounding up weapons from the very people who may have attacked the facility.
Perhaps Obama, in his mind, thought this then was really “an act of war,” not a traditional terrorist attack, but he had not wanted to say that publicly. Or perhaps, as Republicans suggest, he did not want to spoil his campaign theme that terror groups such as al-Qaeda were on the run by conceding a terrorist attack had occurred on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Whatever the reason, when given repeated opportunities to forthrightly declare this was an “act of terrorism,” the president ducked the question.
Read More: http://www.washingtonpost.com/