Now that the Obama administration’s initial narrative that the Benghazi assault was a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam film has collapsed, the new spin from the White House is that President Obama has actually called it a terrorist attack all along.

“Well, first of all, Candy, as you know, the President called it an act of terror the day after it happened,” David Axelrod told CNN’s Candy Crowley this morning, referring to a speech Obama made in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12.

Axelrod’s claim has been pushed by journalists over the past few days, most notably Josh Gerstein at Politico, in a blog post headlined “Obama talked of Libya attack as ‘terror’ 2 weeks ago”:

Despite a drumbeat from the right and even independent fact-checkers that President Barack Obama has been unwilling to label as terrorism the attack on a United States diplomatic mission in Libya, the president indicated just a day after the killing of the American ambassador there that the assault was part of a series of “acts of terror” the U.S. has faced.

Mark Landler made the same claim in an otherwise solid article at the New York Times:

The White House maintains that its account changed as intelligence agencies gathered more details about the attack, not from any desire to diminish its gravity. Mr. Obama, his aides point out, labeled the assault an “act of terror” in his first public response, in the Rose Garden, a day after it happened.

Gerstein and Landler are simply wrong on this.

Obama said during the speech that “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation” — but at no point was it clear that he was using that term to describe the attack in Benghazi. He’d also spent the previous two paragraphs discussing the 9/11 attacks and the aftermath. “Acts of terror” could have just as easily been a reference to that. Or maybe it wasn’t a direct reference to anything, just a generic, reassuring line he’d added into a speech which did take place, after all, the day after the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Here’s the line with some additional context:

Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks.  We mourned with the families who were lost on that day.  I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed.  And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.

As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it.  Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.

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.  Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.  We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.  And make no mistake, justice will be done.

If Obama wanted to call the Benghazi assault a terrorist attack in that speech, he had plenty of opportunities to do so. Instead, he described it as a “terrible act,” a “brutal” act, “senseless violence,” and called the attackers “killers,” not terrorists. It’s also important to consider the context. For a week after this speech, the White House would not call it a terrorist attack. The official position was that Libya was a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam film, not a premeditated or preplanned act.

Some may wonder why it even matters. Maybe Obama really was referring to Benghazi as an “act of terror” in the speech, and he just failed to make that clear enough — so what?

Actually, this is much more than an issue of semantics. Calling it a terrorist attack would have given Obama powers under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) to use military action, including drone warfare, against the perpetrators. If he were serious about “bring[ing] to justice the killers,” which he vowed to do in the speech, then labeling this incident a terrorist attack (if he believed that’s what it was) would have been critical. Instead, we now have the FBI sitting with its hands bound in Tripoli, unable to move forward with a serious investigation.

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