'If four Americans get killed, it's not OPTIMAL': Obama's extraordinary response to Comedy Central question about shifting story after Benghazi attack
By Toby Harnden In Washington
16:44 EST, 18 October 2012 | UPDATED:
07:41 EST, 19 October 2012
President Barack Obama, during an interview shown on Comedy Central, has responded to a question about his administration's confused communication after the Benghazi attack, by saying: 'If four Americans get killed, itís not optimal.'
Obama was speaking to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show for a programme that was broadcast last night. Stewart, a liberal whose young audience is full of potential voters prized by the Obama campaign, asked the president about his handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi attack.
But Obama's response sparked outrage among Republican commentators including the website Breitbart and prompted a vicious backlash from the Twitter community.
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Not optimal: President Barack Obama, pictured left, discussed the killing of four men in Benghazi while speaking to Jon Stewart, right, on The Daily Show
Ambassador Chris Stevens, diplomat Sean Smith and security men and former U.S. Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed by terrorists on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 - an attack that the White House initially blamed on a spontaneous protest about an anti-Islam movie made in California.
Stewart asked: 'Is part of the investigation helping the communication between these divisions? 'Not just what happened in Benghazi, but what happened within.
'Because I would say, even you would admit, it was not the optimal response, at least to the American people, as far as all of us being on the same page.'
Obama responded: 'Here's what Iíll say. If four Americans get killed, itís not optimal.'
He continued: 'Weíre going to fix it. All of it. And what happens, during the course of a presidency, is that the government is a big operation and any given time something screws up.
'And you make sure that you find out whatís broken and you fix it.
'Whatever else I have done throughout the course of my presidency the one thing that Iíve been absolutely clear about is that Americaís security comes, and the American people need to know exactly how I make decisions when it comes to war, peace, security, and protecting Americans.
'And they will continue to get that over the next four years of my presidency.'
The word 'optimal' was first used by Stewart in the question. But Obama's use of it, in a sound bite that could be used to portray him as somewhat casual about the deaths, lit up conservatives on the internet after it was first reported in a White House pool report by Mike Memoli of the 'Los Angeles Times'.
The website Breitbart criticised the president for playing down the deaths of the four Americans when he used words such as 'crude and disgusting' to describe the anti-Muslim YouTube video that was initially linked to the attacks.
'To reiterate: deaths of Americans are "not optimal," and "bumps in the road." A YouTube video is "bigotry," "blasphemy," "crude and disgusting," an "insult," and inhuman,' commentator Ben Shapiro wrote.
'The left is already saying that the 'not optimal' quote has been taken out of context; they were saying that Stewart used the word 'optimal' first.
'The problem: it's far worse in context. Stewart said that the White House response was 'not the optimal response.' Obama responded not by tackling the White House response, but by calling the murders 'not optimal.'
Shapiro added: '"Not optimal." Now that's disgusting.'
The Twitter backlash was almost instantaneous, with the president's use of Stewart's phrase giving birth to the hashtag #NotOptimal. The dedicated hashtag was trending at around 7:30pm ET.
Obama's slip could help Mitt Romney recover from an awkward moment in the presidential debate in Long Island, New York on Tuesday when he challenged Obama over whether he had initially characterised the Benghazi attack as terrorism.
During a question about security at the Benghazi compound, Obama said he was ultimately responsible as commander-in-chief. Romney then questioned whether or not Obama had called the consulate attack an 'act of terror' in his Rose Garden address the following day.
While Obama cut across Romney - saying 'get the transcript' - the Republican turned to Candy Crowley, the CNN anchor and moderator, and 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.'
Crowley responded: 'He did in fact, sir.' To clapping in the debate hall, including from Obama's wife Michelle, in breach of the debate rules, Obama said: 'Can you say that a little louder, Candy?'
She continued: 'He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.'
The Romney campaign blasted Crowley and said that Obama had been referring only in general terms to 'acts of terror' rather than talking specifically about Benghazi, which Obama and White House blamed on the anti-Islam video for a fortnight.
Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic strategist, told Fox News that the exchange was 'going to help the president', adding: 'Thereís a ref, and the ref just threw the flag.'
In the Comedy central interview, Stewart referred to 'the perception that State was on a different page than you', noting that Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, falsely tied the attack to a protest over the video on a raft of Sunday talk shows some five days after the murders.
Obama interrupted him, saying: 'Jon, the truth is that information comes in, folks put it out throughout the process, people say it is still incomplete. What I was always clear about was we are going to do an investigation and figure out what happened.'
Asked what caused the confusion about what was behind the attack, he replied: 'Well, we weren't confused about the fact that four Americans had been killed, I wasn't confused about the fact that we needed to ramp up diplomatic security around the world right after it happened, I wasn't confused about the fact that we had to investigate exactly what happened so it gets fixed and I wasn't confused about the fact that we were going to hunt down whoever did it and bring them to justice.
'So, as I said during the debate, nobody is more interested in figuring this out than I am. When a tragic event like this happens on the other side of the world immediately a whole bunch of intelligence starts coming in and you try to piece together exactly what happens.
'And what I have always tried to do is just get all the facts figure out what went wrong and make sure it doesn't happen again and we're still in that process now. But every piece of information that we got as we got it we laid it out for the American people, and the picture eventually gets fully filled in and we know how to prevent it in the future.'Stewart also asked whether Obama - who nearly three years ago ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year - had changed during his four years in office and whether he still believed 'we don't have to trade our values for our security'.
Obama said: 'We don't, there's some things that we haven't gotten done, I still want to close Guantanamo, we haven't been able to get that done. One of the things that we've got to do is put a legal architecture in place and we need congressional help to do that to make sure that not only am I reigned in, but any president's reigned in in terms of some of the decisions that we're making.
'Now there's some tough trade-offs, I mean there are times when there are bad folks somewhere on the other side of the world and you've got to make a call and it's not optimal.
'When you look at our track record as to say we've ended the war in Iraq, we're winding down the war in Afghanistan we've gone after al-Qaeda and it's leadership, it's true that al-Qaeda is still active at least remnants of it are staging in North Africa and the Middle East and sometimes you've got to make some tough calls, but you can do so that is consistent with international law and American law.'