What Congressman Issa has now made clear is exactly the scope of the president's responsibility, faulting him for describing the Benghazi attacks as an "act of terror," as opposed to a "terrorist attack." Seriously, this is the big point Issa was making at the hearing. Ridicule fails me at the moment, so I'll try to give this undeserving congressman the benefit of the doubt and take the distinction he is making seriously.
The difference Issa was drawing between an "act of terror" and a "terrorist attack" reminded me of the efforts of Secretary of State Warren Christopher to minimize the killings in Rwanda in the 1990's by calling them "acts of genocide" instead of just plain genocide. This may have been done to minimize the level of criminality involved. Calling those killings genocide arguably would have triggered at least a moral, and perhaps a legal obligation, for our country to do something to stop the killings, and there was some hesitation about getting involved more deeply in the Rwandan situation. On the other hand, a State Department spokesman back then eventually admitted that there was no difference between "acts" of genocide, and actual genocide. So it turned out to be a distinction without a difference. But still, in hindsight, maybe a reprehensible effort to downplay the significance of horrendous events taking place in Rwanda. And perhaps done for a questionable reason, to avoid using a label that might have obligated the U.S. to contemplate stronger action.
Is that the example Congressman Issa was thinking of? Was President Obama trying to downplay the level of criminality of those who struck our consulate, by calling the attack an act of terror instead of a terrorist attack? Is there a difference? In this case, unlike the case of using the word "genocide," there doesn't seem to be a real moral or legal distinction between using the term "act of terror," as opposed to "terrorist attack." In either case, there is no clear trigger for action. The report linked above notes that President Bush called the September 11 attacks an "act of terror," and he doesn't seem to have been faulted for that language, nor did that usage limit our ability to retaliate. And while President Reagan used strong language in response to the 1983 bombing of a marine barracks in Lebanon, which killed more than 200 soldiers and sailors, calling it a "despicable act," he took no serious action in retaliation, instead turning tail and pulling out of Lebanon. Anyway, even if President Obama's terminology was done in an effort to delay a stronger response, and there is no evidence that is the case, is that an impeachable offense? Evidently some of the president's most ardent political enemies think so.
From the evidence we have seen so far, it seems you could almost make the opposite accusation. By calling the Libya attack an "act of terror," President Obama might have been jumping to conclusions a bit, based on what was known at the time. For in the immediate aftermath of the attack, it wasn't entirely clear, according to our own intelligence agencies, whether we were dealing with an assassination, or a riot, or a terrorist attack, or something else. Using any kind of label might even be thought uncharacteristically hasty for a president who is generally so cautious about jumping to conclusions.
I realize that Congressional zealots are interested in setting the bar for this president impossibly high. Whatever he says must be wrong. But this pack of wolves might give a thought to the standards they are setting for future presidents. In the midst of any future crisis, must the president get every nuance perfectly correct, to the satisfaction of every possible critic from every direction, or risk these kinds of ridiculous threats of criminal prosecution?