Here’s the key exchange:
Obama: "The day after the attack, governor, 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, and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime."
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.”
Moderator Candy Crowley: "It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir."
A Sept. 12 White House document titled "Remarks by the President on the Deaths of U.S. Embassy Staff in Libya" contains these words: "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."
But on Wednesday, Rep. Paul Ryan offered this exegesis of Obama’s remarks: "It was a passing comment about acts of terror in general; it was not a claim that this was a result of a terrorist attack."
Let’s unpack these complaints.
1) Did Obama call the Benghazi attack an act of terror on Sept. 12? Pretty clearly he did, meaning that Romney was wrong and Crowley and Obama were right on that narrow issue. That doesn’t mean Obama believed the attack was long in the planning and unrelated to the outrage over the "Innocence of Muslims" video.
2) Romney, Ryan and Republican John Sununu want to define "act of terror" as an "elaborately planned act of terror attributable to Al Qaeda and unrelated to outrage over a video." If Obama had described the attack in that way, alarm bells rightly would gone off four days later when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said that the attack seemed to have been spontaneous and inspired by outrage over the video. (More about Rice below.)
3) Obama’s administration created some real openings for the Republicans. Clearly it should have established sooner that the attack wasn’t just an act of terror in the dictionary definition but a well-planned operation unrelated to outrage over the video. It wasn’t until Oct. 9 that officials at State confirmed that there never was a protest over the video in Benghazi.
4) Eager to undercut Obama’s credibility, Republicans have responded in shotgun style, failing to agree on a common line of attack. The insistence that Obama didn’t recognize the attack as a form of terrorism -- the subtext of the claim that he didn’t really call the attack a “terrorist act” -- indicts him for obtuseness. At the same time, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has suggested -- and Romney toyed with this accusation at the debate -- that the administration knew all along that the attack was well planned and unrelated to the video but encouraged Rice and others to conceal this fact. As Graham put it: “They never believed that media would investigate. Congress was out of session, and this caught up with them. I think they've been misleading us, but it finally caught up with them.”
So which is it: Obama failed to recognize a terrorist attack when he saw one (despite his words in the Rose Garden), or he recognized the truth and then tried to cover it up? Romney and the Republicans have to choose.