ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Republican candidate Mitt Romney said Thursday the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya is an issue in the presidential campaign in part because Americans wonder why it took the Obama administration so long to acknowledge it was a terrorist act.
Romney was responding to a charge by President Barack Obama's campaign that the Republican ticket has been politicizing the attack, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
At a rally in North Carolina, Romney read aloud comments from Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter about the attack. "The entire reason that this has become the, you know, political topic it is, is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan," Cutter told CNN.
"No, President Obama," Romney said. "It's an issue because this is the first time in 33 years that a United States ambassador has been assassinated. Mr. President, this is an issue because we were attacked successfully by terrorists on the anniversary of Sept. 11. President Obama, this is an issue because Americans wonder why it was it took so long for you and your administration to admit that this was a terrorist attack."
In response, Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said Romney was trying to "score cheap political points."
The back-and-forth comes a day after Republicans used a politically charged House hearing to confront State Department officials about security at the U.S. consulate in Libya and assail the Obama administration's early response to the killing of the ambassador and three other Americans there.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens died in what administration officials now describe as an act of terrorism.
In statements immediately after the attack, neither Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned terrorism, though Obama referred to "acts of terror" in his Rose Garden statement the morning after the assault. Both Obama and Clinton gave credence to the notion that the attack was related to protests about the privately made anti-Islam video.
"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," Clinton said on the night of the attack. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
The day after the attacks, State Department officials described them in a conference call with reporters. They outlined a prolonged assault that involved attacks on two different buildings at the Benghazi consulate, with Stevens and other officials trying to escape from one building only to be pinned down by gunfire in another.
Five days after the attack, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said her best information at the time was that it stemmed from a protest that became violent.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that in hindsight "there is no question that the security was not enough to prevent that tragedy from happening. There were four Americans killed."
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