WASHINGTON — The word, and whether President Barack Obama used it quickly enough or correctly, became a political issue in last year’s campaign.
But Obama and his staff still appear to be puzzling over when — and how — to call an attack a “terrorist” act and when to wait for a clear determination of the motives behind one.
Hours after the Boston Marathon bombing, Obama appeared in the Brady briefing room to assure the nation that whoever carried it out would “feel the full weight of justice.”
He did not characterize the attack as terrorism, advising instead that the public “shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts.” It was the caution of a president who once snapped at a reporter during a news conference, “I like to know the facts before I speak.”
Not long after Obama’s appearance, though, a senior White House official emailed reporters to make clear that the Boston bombings “will be approached as an act of terror.”
The official said the multiple explosive devices placed at the marathon finish line were telltale signs of deliberate terrorism. On Tuesday morning, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the Boston strike “a cruel act of terror.”
A senior administration official said Tuesday that “based on all the available evidence at the time, it was a very reasonable assumption that this was an act of terror.”
But White House officials said the evidence must be definitive for the president to use the term when speaking to a national television audience in the midst of a crisis. The flexibility available to White House officials, though, allowed the administration to clarify what they didn’t feel Obama should — that the attack was assumed to be terrorism and that the government would operate its investigation under that assumption.
Obama spoke Tuesday morning on the attack, calling it “heinous and cowardly.”
“Given what we now know of what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism,” Obama said.
The “terrorism” term has been used subjectively for years, not only in the post-9/11 era but in conflict zones around the globe. Labeling a group or a state as “terrorist” has legal implications within the U.S. government, and for companies who may be doing business with those so classified.
But in the American political debate, the word has also become a rhetorical measure of how committed a politician is to combating extremism.
For a president who has made repairing U.S. relations with the Muslim world a priority, Obama has sought to use the term as precisely as possible over the years — while avoiding the criticism that arises when an act, group or person is not labeled a “terrorist” soon enough.
Last September, the word entered the election debate after gunmen attacked a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The assault occurred on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the following day, Obama appeared in the Rose Garden to celebrate Stevens’s life and to warn the attackers.
“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,” Obama said, in what administration officials described as a tacit acknowledgment that the Benghazi attacks amounted to terrorism. “Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.”
The administration account of the attacks shifted over several weeks, and Republicans in particular criticized Obama, then in the stretch run of his re-election campaign, for failing to call the killings of Stevens and his colleagues an act of terrorism.
That Obama used the word the day after the attack was largely forgotten.
In their Oct. 16 debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney accused Obama of incorrectly stating that he had used the word in his Rose Garden appearance.
Obama told him to check the transcript, and the moderator, Candy Crowley, interjected that Obama was in fact correct.