By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON Oct 16 In the defining moment of a
testy debate, President Barack Obama lashed into Mitt Romney on
Tuesday over the Republican's criticism of his handling of a
deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya and sought
to cast him as unfit to become commander-in-chief.
Moving to regain lost ground after a weak performance in the
first presidential debate, Obama fought back against his rival's
accusations that he had played down the Sept. 11 assault by
Islamist militants in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador
and three other Americans.
Romney, who dominated the candidates' previous encounter,
appeared stunned as Obama launched a finger-wagging
counterattack over an issue that has become a flashpoint with
just three weeks to go in a presidential race considered too
close to call.
The exchange came near the end of a debate dominated mostly
by arguments over the economy, jobs and taxes, considered
voters' main concerns in the Nov. 6 election.
Romney and his aides have sought to use the Benghazi
incident - as well as anti-American unrest in other parts of the
Arab world - to dent Obama's national security credentials and
accuse him of pursuing a failed Middle East policy.
But Obama came out swinging in their second debate at
Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, accusing Romney of
exploiting the Benghazi attack in an effort to score "offensive"
"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, referring to the Republican's initial
criticism of the administration's response before the full
extent of the bloodshed was known.
Obama and Romney argued testily in front of a group of
undecided voters over whether Obama had come out fast enough in
describing the Libya attack as terrorism, and the president
appeared to get the better of his opponent.
"I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people
and the world that we are going to find out exactly what
happened, that this was an act of terror," Obama said.
Romney was incredulous. He challenged Obama's assertion,
apparently unaware of Obama's remarks the morning after the
"Get the transcript," Obama told Romney in the closest thing
to a smack-down moment in the 90-minute debate.
"He did, in fact, sir," moderator Candy Crowley said, siding
with Obama. "He did call it an act of terror."
A transcript of the Rose Garden appearance that day shows
Obama said: "...no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of
this great nation."
But despite that comment, some of Obama's top aides had
initially attributed the Benghazi violence to protests over an
anti-Islam film and said it was not premeditated, before finally
acknowledging much later that it was a terrorist attack.
And Obama, in a Sept. 24 taping of an appearance on ABC's
"The View" program, also seemed to hedge when he was asked
whether Benghazi was an act of terrorism. He said it "wasn't
just a mob action" but pointed to an ongoing investigation.
Obama said for the first time on Tuesday he was "ultimately
responsible" for the safety and security of the Americans killed
in the attack. "I'm the president and I'm always responsible,"
Seeking to recover from his apparent misstep, Romney pointed
to the administration's shifting explanations of the events in
Benghazi, suggesting it had been an attempt to mislead.
"It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by
a terrorist group," he said.
In the months before the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya,
U.S. and allied intelligence agencies warned the White House and
State Department repeatedly that the region was becoming an
increasingly dangerous vortex for jihadist groups loosely linked
or sympathetic to al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.
Despite those warnings and bold public displays by Islamist
militants around Benghazi, embassies in the region were advised
to project a sense of calm and normalcy in the run-up to the
anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Romney's supporters have accused the administration of being
slow to label the attack as terrorism to avoid detracting from
the president's campaign narrative of being a strong world
leader who put al Qaeda on the path to defeat.
Polls have shown national security a strong point for Obama
with voters, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Going on the offensive, Obama sought to depict Romney, who
has little foreign policy experience and has stumbled during his
occasional forays on the world stage, as ill-prepared to take on
the role of commander-in-chief in a dangerous world.
Romney fired back, saying the Benghazi incident "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 Israel," Romney
said. "We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb."