By Julian Pecquet - 10/17/12 02:51 AM EDT
President Obama had the help of moderator Candy Crowley during Tuesday's second presidential debate when rebutting an argument from Mitt Romney about his administration's response to last month's attack in Libya.
Romney and congressional Republicans for weeks have been lambasting the president for taking too long to qualify the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead on Sept. 11 as a result of terrorism.
Romney was visibly surprised by the president's answer and appeared to believe he'd caught the president in a lie.
“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 said. “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.”
"Get the transcript," Obama replied.
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Crowley then broke in, saying: “He did in fact, sir. So let me — let me call it an act of terror …”
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama shouted.
“He — he did call it an act of terror," Crowley said as some in the audience applauded. "It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that,” Crowley said.
The transcript of the president's speech from the day after the attack in Libya shows that Obama used the phrase "act of terror" during his remarks, albeit indirectly.
“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,” the president said on Sept. 12. “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."
Conservatives pointed out that Obama mentioned the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks a few lines earlier in his Rose Garden remarks and said the reference to “acts of terror” was not about Benghazi.
In an interview after the debate on CNN, Crowley said Romney's broader point that the Obama administration didn’t initially call the Benghazi assault a terrorist attack was correct.
"He was right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word," Crowley said.
A timeline compiled by The Hill shows that National Counterterrorism Center director Matthew Olsen was the first member of the Obama administration to call the Libya assault a terrorist attack, and did so during congressional testimony on Sept. 19. The next day, White House press secretary Jay Carney said it was "self-evident" that the assault was terrorism.
Obama also took responsibility for security lapses in Libya during the debate, saying the buck stopped with him. He made the comments one day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was the one ultimately responsible for the safety of her diplomats.
“Sec. Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I'm the president. And I'm always responsible,” Obama said. “And that's why nobody's more interested in finding out exactly what happened."
Obama went on to accuse Romney of politicizing national security by criticizing the administration before all the facts were known.
Romney for his part said the attack in Benghazi was part of a larger picture of leadership failures around the world, from the ongoing civil war in Syria to Iran's continuing nuclear weapons program.
“I think the president just said correctly that the buck stops at his desk,” Romney said.
— This story was last updated at 12:34 a.m.