WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, President Barack Obama has aimed to be both visible and cautious in his response, declaring the attack an “act of terror” while warning the nation against jumping to conclusions.
The president’s approach underscores the struggle to piece together information about what happened Monday at the finish line of the famous race, as well the White House’s lessons learned from previous terrorist incidents, including last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Obama was criticized by Republicans throughout the final weeks of the presidential campaign for being reluctant to call the incident an act of terror and for statements administration officials made about the attack that were later proved false.
The circumstances surrounding the marathon bombing and the Libya attack may be different, but many of the considerations for the White House are the same — in particular, how quickly should the president address the nation, and when he does, how should he characterize an incident when an investigation is in its infancy?
In this case, the answers were “quickly” but “carefully.” The president spoke to the nation just three hours after the explosion, but he waited until his next-day remarks to declare it terrorism.
“Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror,” Obama said Tuesday from the White House briefing room. “What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack, or why; whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual.”
In addition to his public statements from Washington, Obama will travel to Boston on Thursday to attend a service for the three people killed and more than 170 wounded in the attack. The bombs that ripped through the crowd at the marathon were fashioned out of pressure cookers and packed with metal shards, nails and ball bearings to inflict maximum carnage, a person briefed on the investigation said Tuesday.
Administration officials say those details and others had not been confirmed when Obama made his initial comments Monday, leading them to conclude that it was best for the president to avoid publicly calling the attacks terrorism. Yet White House officials told reporters in the moments after the president’s statement that the incident was, in fact, being treated as terrorism.
Richard Grenell, a former U.N. official and foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, took issue with the initial differences between the White House’s public and private characterizations.
“You don’t get to play both sides,” he said. “By playing both sides, it’s clear they’re nervous about the political implications of their words.”
Grenell was among the Republicans who sharply criticized the Obama administration for its reluctance to say the Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans was terrorism. They argued that, in the midst of a presidential campaign, Obama didn’t want to be responsible for a terror attack on his watch.
The critics also assailed Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for saying on Sunday talk shows that the attack was spontaneous, not premeditated. Her comments were based on intelligence assessments that were later found to be false, and the criticism forced her to withdraw from consideration as Obama’s second secretary of state.
Former administration officials say that experience serves as a cautionary tale as the White House seeks to inform the public in the midst of an active investigation.
“The problem you have in the White House is that the hunger and demand for information from the press is always going to outpace your investigation,” said Tommy Vietor, Obama’s former National Security Council spokesman. “But there’s no upside to rushing.”
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