Libya Debate Controversy: The Many Assumptions Of Romney And Obama

US President Barack Obama  (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in  the second presidential
US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the second presidential debate, the only held in a townhall format, at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. AFP PHOTO / Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the most raucous moments of Tuesday night's debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney came when the two sparred over Obama's handling of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead, including a U.S. ambassador.

The controversy over that incident has dogged the Obama administration for weeks, and even after Romney fumbled with his critique on Tuesday it is showing no signs of abating.

But it is also increasingly a controversy predicated on a number of semantic turns and assumptions, and not an awful lot of solid information. Here, a few of the key assumptions underlying the conversation, as it goes forward on your televisions:

If Obama said the phrase "acts of terror," that means the Republican criticism of him is wrong.

The narrow focus of Tuesday night's tense exchange -- and an on-site fact check by moderator Candy Crowley -- was whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack an act of terror in the first days after the assault.

"I think it's interesting, the president just said something which is that on the day after the attack he went in the Rose Garden and said this was an act of terror?" Romney said.

"That's what I said," Obama responded.

"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?" Romney asked Obama again, his eyebrows rising.

"Please proceed, Governor," Obama said to the stunned Romney.

We now know that Obama did use the phrase "acts of terror" -- both in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12 and on Sept. 13 on the campaign trail in Colorado. There is some lingering debate about whether Obama meant to apply the phrase directly to the Benghazi attacks, but in both cases he used it in a context that indicates he did.

But the Obama campaign shouldn't be doing a celebratory dance just yet. Even if Romney did err by focusing his question too narrowly on the speech in the Rose Garden, the broader point still applies: the Obama administration was not clear for nearly two weeks that the attack had been terrorism. Buzzfeed's McKay Coppins reports that the Romney team plans to continue to "litigate Libya" over the next week.

But after all, if Obama meant for his statements on the days after to be definitive and final, you'd think more people -- including Romney -- would have noticed them.

If it was a terrorist attack it couldn't have been spontaneous, or related to the video.

In the Republican attacks on the president, the scenarios have often been laid out as black and white: either the events were related to the anti-Islam video and were spontaneous, or it was a terrorist attack, period. (Romney phrased it this way last night, when he asked the president if he had called the event an act of terror, and "not a spontaneous demonstration.")

But couldn't it be both, or something in between? In fact, there are a lot of possibilities, and very few have been definitively ruled out.

So far the State Department has only formally declared that there was not a peaceful protest earlier in the night, so we can strike peaceful protest that got out of hand, with RPGs.

But "spontaneous" is a bit trickier. Some administration officials have hinted that they do believe the attack was pre-planned, and set to take place on Sept. 11. But there have also been whispers that the attack may have been planned but not activated until the protests around the world over the video provided a good opportunity. Or perhaps the attacks were committed by an organized and well-armed militant group -- don't forget, Libyan rebels just fought and won a massive war; these people exist all over the country -- that had a general idea but no plan, and simply seized the moment.

Recently, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that its information is now "indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists." But, ODNI continued, "it remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate."

AOL Defense recently noted that Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper has said the attackers used no radios, cell phones or any other type of communications that could be intercepted in the period before the attack.

The State Department has said only that it was "not our conclusion" that the attacks were prompted by a protest over the video.

Meanwhile, a link to the video, oblique as it may be, has not been entirely ruled out either. The New York Times and other outlets on the scene in Benghazi at the time reported that witnesses who gathered during the attack repeatedly spoke of the video, and even now the Times's fact check of the debate notes that "journalistic reporting from Libya indicates that the video was a motivating factor for many who participated in the attack."

And what about that pesky CIA annex that was apparently on the site, with many heavily armed men? Could the militants have thought they were attacking a CIA base, or a special operations command -- and had no idea the ambassador would be there? That might technically make it more of a legitimate act of war in intent, than an act of terror.

If the administration said the attack was spontaneous it must have been lying, or engaging in a cover-up.

This is the subtext for most of the ongoing debate currently, and it is still unresolved, although it merits continued pursuit. It is not obviously "scandalous," any more than it is obviously a false accusation.

On Sunday Sept. 16, five days after the attack, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told several Sunday morning talk shows that the "best assessment" of the intelligence agencies pointed to the attacks being "spontaneous" and not premeditated.

The ODNI has since said that this was indeed its initial assessment, and given the sketchiness of information at the time, and the news reporting on the ground, it's not impossible that this is what the administration initially believed. Eli Lake has reported that at least some factions of the intelligence community believed the attack to be Al Qaeda-linked terrorism within 24 hours. But it is not clear when that information trickled to the administration, and Lake also reported that "talking points" prepared by the intel community later in the week still spoke of an event possibly linked to the video.

It's harder yet to explain why the White House continued this line for nearly two weeks. As late as Sept. 19, White House spokesman Jay Carney was still insisting that "we have no evidence of a pre-planned or premeditated attack."

But was it intentionally misleading? A lie? A cover-up? And, to that point, a cover up of what? (Some say it was in the White House's interest to not portray the attacks as in any way undercutting Obama's message that he had dealt a staggering blow to Al Qaeda.)

Or was it the fog of war, or bureaucratic fumbling, or simply the casual arrogance of a chronically mis-leaking administration?

If some journalists who cover this administration seemed less shocked by the alleged dishonesty and misdirection than the general public, it may be because we've seen this show before. In the days after the Osama bin Laden raid, top administration and intelligence officials declared confidently that bin Laden had been killed in a firefight and had used a wife as a human shield. Both facts were later withdrawn.

If the candidates' mouths are moving, they're answering the question.

Forgotten in the whole debate over who said what is the actual question that was asked at Tuesday's debate, prompting the back-and-forth. "Who was it that denied enhanced security, and why?" the questioner asked, about the decision, acknowledged by the State Department, to not supply more security to the embassy in Tripoli. Neither candidate spoke to this, nor will this article. That one opens a whole other world of assumptions.

One of the only things that is clear is that these are questions that deserve answers.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).



Attack On U.S. Compound In Benghazi