By Amie Parnes - 09/20/12 08:49 PM EDT
President Obama said on Thursday that extremists in Libya used an anti-Muslim film “as an excuse” to see if they can “also harm” U.S. interests overseas.
Speaking at a town hall hosted by Univision, Obama fielded questions on the attacks in Libya last week, which led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests,” Obama said at the University of Miami.
Asked specifically if al Qaeda was behind the attack, Obama replied, “Well, we don’t know yet.”
He said the U.S is going to continue to investigate the matter and that Egypt and Libya have pledged their “full cooperation” while the inquiry continues.
Obama’s comments came an hour after the White House labeled the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi a “terrorist attack.”
“It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials. So, again, that’s self-evident.”
But Carney emphasized there is no proof the attack was premeditated and pushed back on the notion that this had been a planned attack on the Sept. 11 anniversary.
“Had this happened on any day of the week on any month, this would have been a terrorist attack," Carney said.
Republicans have argued the weapons used in the attack on the Libyan consulate suggest it was premeditated. They have criticized administration officials for insisting it was a spontaneous act.
“I just don’t think people come to protest equipped with [rocket-propelled grenades] and other heavy weapons,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Wednesday during a Homeland Security panel hearing.
“And the reports of complicity — and they are many — with the Libyan guards who were assigned to guard the consulate also suggest to me that this was premeditated,” she said.
In a Thursday report that raised questions about the administration’s account of the attack, CBS News cited unidentified witnesses who said there was no peaceful protest at the Benghazi consulate.
Republicans have also questioned the level of security at the consulate.
Obama on Thursday said his No. 1 priority is to keep diplomats and embassies safe.
He vowed to remain “vigilant” and said that the one thing the U.S. “can’t do is withdraw from the region.”
The president fielded questions on a range of topics before a largely Hispanic crowd in Miami that included immigration and his opponent Mitt Romney’s comments to donors — leaked in a video this week — that 47 percent of Americans rely on government support.
“When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government, my thinking is maybe you haven’t gotten around a lot,” Obama said. “I travel around the country all the time, and American people are the hardest-working people there are. And their problem is not that they’re not working hard enough or they don’t want to work or they’re being taxed too little or they want to loaf around and collect government checks.”
During the forum, Obama acknowledged that not passing comprehensive immigration reform might be his great failure during his time in office.
But he added that the failure to pass the legislation is “not for a lack of trying or desire.”
"I'm confident we're going to accomplish that," Obama said.
Obama also added that another disappointment has been not being able "to change the tone" in Washington.
"I've learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I've learned is you can't change Washington from the inside," Obama said. "You can only change it from the outside."