(CNSNews.com) – President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney tussled during Tuesday night’s testy debate over their respective responses to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, with both striking blows over the explosive issue.
Obama accused Romney of “trying to make political points” by issuing a press release criticizing the administration’s response on the day of the attack. “That’s not how a commander in chief operates,” Obama said. “You don’t turn national security into a political issue.”
Romney in turn pointed to the administration’s muddled response to an attack that resulted in the first murder of a U.S. envoy in three decades, particularly Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s assertions five days later that it was a “spontaneous reaction” to an online video clip mocking Islam’s prophet, rather than a terrorist attack.
Romney also accused the president of mismanaging policy in the broader region, citing not just Libya but Syria, Egypt, Iran and Israel, saying that a “strategy of leading from behind” was “unraveling before our very eyes.”
Both candidates saw an opportunity to strike over the question of when Obama first acknowledged that Benghazi was a terrorist attack. After Romney said it had taken “a long time” for the American people to be told that it was terrorism, Obama retorted that, just one day after the assault, he had said in the White House Rose Garden “that this was an act of terror.”
When Romney questioned that, Obama advised him to check the Sept. 12 Rose Garden transcript – before debate moderator Candy Crowley intervened and told the GOP candidate that Obama “did call it an act of terror.”
However, in his Rose Garden comments, Obama used the phrase “acts of terror,” in the context both of the Libya incident and al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States 11 years earlier.
“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,” he said. “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.”
In the ensuing days, however, both Rice and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney focused on the video clip in their comments on the anti-American violence both in Benghazi and elsewhere in the region. Republican lawmakers were especially critical of Rice, who did the round of Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16 to reinforce the line that, according to the best information available at the time, the Benghazi attack was a reaction to the video.
Attention also turned to the question of diplomatic security, with GOP lawmakers claiming that the administration had turned down repeated requests from the mission in Libya for more security.
At a House Oversight Committee hearing last week, administration officials confirmed that requests had been received from U.S. diplomats for more security in Benghazi. Deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security Charlene Lamb told the panel she had not supported the requests.
During Tuesday’s debate, Obama said he accepted responsibility for the security of American diplomats.
“I send them there, oftentimes into harm’s way,” he said. “Nobody is more concerned about their safety and security than I am.”
After Crowley noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said on Monday that she took full responsibility for Benghazi, Obama praised Clinton but added, “She works for me. I’m the president and I'm always responsible, and that’s why nobody’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do.”
Romney said Obama was correct in saying “that the buck does stop at his desk and – and he takes responsibility for, for that – for the failure in providing those security resources.”