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Friday, October 19, 2012

Obama Addresses Libya Attack in Daily Show Interview

President Obama and Jon Stewart during a break in taping for Damon Winter/The New York Times President Obama and Jon Stewart during a break in taping for “The Daily Show” on Thursday in New York.

President Obama on Thursday acknowledged “screw-ups” in the government's handling of the deadly attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and vowed an investigation that would fix them.

Questioned on the attack and the conflicting accounts of it by “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, Mr. Obama said: “The government is a big operation and any given time, something screws up. And you make sure that you find out what's broken and you fix it.”

“When fo ur Americans get killed, it's not optimal,” Mr. Obama said, according to a White House pool report of the taping. “We're going to fix it. All of it.”

Mr. Obama's language was a notable departure from his second debate with Mitt Romney, in which he spoke emotionally of the four Americans killed in Benghazi as “my folks.” But he was replying to a question from Mr. Stewart, in which he said, “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.”

Though the interview had some light moments, the host was characteristically tough in his questioning of the president, pushing him to explain the administration's shifting accounts of the Libya attack, the negative tone of his campaign, the trade-offs between American values and national security interests, and whether he would be able to break Washington gridlock in a second term.

Much of the fo cus was on Libya, with Mr. Stewart pressing the president on why the State Department and the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, seemed to give different accounts of the attack in the immediate aftermath.

“Every piece of information that we get, as we got it, we laid it out to the American people,” Mr. Obama replied. “The picture eventually gets fully filled in.” But he rejected Mr. Stewart's suggestion that the administration was confused in its response.

“We weren't confused about the fact that four Americans had been killed,” Mr. Obama said. “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're going to hunt down whoever did it.”

Speaking more broadly about counterterrorism, the president said “remnant s” of Al Qaeda were still active in North Africa and the Middle East, but that the administration had “gone after Al Qaeda and its leadership.” He repeated his promise to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, saying he had not been able to get it through Congress.

Mr. Stewart poked fun at Mr. Obama's lackluster performance in the first debate, showing him two photos of Michelle Obama after the debates that he said he was putting into a campaign scrapbook. He said he was not sure which was which (Mrs. Obama was smiling broadly in one and looking at Mr. Obama with an angry expression in the other).

“Cute,” Mr. Obama said. “Cute, Jon.”

After a commercial break, Mr. Stewart quizzed the president on how many times a week Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. turned up at White House meetings in a bathing suit. “We had to stop that,” Mr. Obama replied, saying he had issued a presidential directive. “I gotta say, though, he looks pre tty good.”