After days of holding back, the White House on Thursday labeled the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a "terrorist attack." The incident, which involved heavy gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), killed four Americans including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Highlighting the suspected presence of militia and terrorist elements in Libya, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told the press corps, "It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack."
The declaration comes one day after Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), told a Senate committee that -- despite the absence of "specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack" -- the four Americans "were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy."
It all sounds like common sense, right?
But there's just one problem with these statements: All acts of terrorism, by federal statute, require premeditation. If, as Carney acknowledged, there is "no information at this point to suggest that this is a significantly pre-planned attack," then the plotting criterion has not been met. No premeditation, no terrorism.
The confusion over how to characterize the Benghazi attack stems in part from a much larger problem: Policymakers -- including even those at the highest levels -- lack a clear understanding of what constitutes "terrorism." For political operatives like Carney, this is understandable. After all, he takes his cues from the experts in government. But for Olsen, whose job requires an intimate knowledge of the legal definition of terrorism, the oversight is troubling.
The statutory definition of terrorism is codified in Title 22 of the U.S. Code as: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." As this definition indicates, officials at the NCTC -- the agency tasked with making such determinations -- must answer five questions in the affirmative before deeming an act to be terrorism: