WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama assumed responsibility Tuesday for the deadly terror attack in Libya last month that killed four Americans just hours after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to shoulder the blame for any mistakes the administration made.
"She works for me," the president said in New York in his second presidential debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. "I'm the president and I'm always responsible, and that's why nobody's more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do."
With three weeks before the presidential election, the administration has been unable to put to rest its handling of the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, a State Department computer specialist and two former Navy SEALs who were working as contract security guards.
Obama's statement came amid a spirited back-and-forth with the former Massachusetts governor over the assault on the consulate, the only significant foreign policy disagreement in an hour-and-a-half exchange dominated by domestic concerns.
Romney challenged the president to explain why U.S. officials argued for more than a week after the Sept. 11 assault that it stemmed from a protest against an American-made film ridiculing Islam.
"Whether there was some misleading, or instead whether we just didn't know what happened, you have to ask yourself why didn't we know," Romney said.
"It was very clear this was not a demonstration," he said. "This was an attack by terrorists."
The two also traded jabs on how quickly the president declared Benghazi an act of terror -- with Romney insisting it took two weeks and Obama saying he said as much the day after in an address from the White House Rose Garden. That drew an intervention from the moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, who appeared to side with Obama.
Before the debate, Clinton tried her best to defuse an issue that is threatening to become a potential obstacle to Obama's re-election campaign.
In a statement that could have long-term ramifications given the persistent speculation that she might run for president in four years' time or stay in public life, Clinton accepted responsibility for the safety of the State Department's staff and diplomatic missions. It was quickly brushed aside by leading Republicans who directed their criticism toward the president.
But her message left several lingering questions unanswered, such as whether the attack on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 occurred because of intelligence failures and why administration officials repeated for so long their account of the anti-American demonstration gone awry.
"I take responsibility," Clinton said, reiterating comments she made in a television interview late Monday. "I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world (at) 275 posts."
Clinton's remarks may have been intentionally vague. Neither in her interviews or her statement does she spell out what exactly she assumes responsibility for, a tactic that may have been employed to avoid culpability for specific failings or tasks strictly outside her control.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton "was extremely clear what she takes responsibility for, which is the operation of this department, all of the men and women here."
The assessment offered nothing definitive about intelligence that may have been used to make security decisions before the attack or the administration's initial accounting of the incident as the byproduct of angry protests. The administration since has referred to a well-coordinated terrorist attack.
The intelligence may have come from the CIA or other agencies beyond Clinton's reach; the post-attack messaging likely would have been coordinated by the administration as a whole -- especially after Romney attacked an independent statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on the day of the Libya attack.
The Benghazi attack has turned deeply political even within the State Department, with Clinton turning message management over to one of her most trusted aides, Philippe Reines.
Reines, a veteran of Clinton's Senate days and presidential campaign, is a key member of a separate crisis management team that has operated from an office on the ground floor of the department's headquarters. It has focused on preparations for last week's congressional hearing and the department's internal investigation.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner called it "a small group of people helping to get materials together for Congress and to support the process."
Clinton, meanwhile, has been largely shielded from the Benghazi fallout. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was tasked five days after the attack with presenting it as a protest gone awry, and Clinton conspicuously avoided questioning as that account unraveled.
Even in Clinton's own department, officials have been left in the dark by some of the maneuvering. Some say privately that they see Clinton's gesture less as a case of her falling on her sword for the administration, but presenting herself as the statesman who has accepted her part in any failure. By doing so, they said, she is winning praise from some Republicans and taking herself out of the blame game she said in her statement that she wanted to avoid.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested a more muddied picture, noting that "there are many people that believe that Secretary Clinton may have further political ambitions and this could obviously harm that in one way, but also bring in some additional support, possibly from President Obama who can't run again."
Obama has consistently trumped Romney in polls on foreign policy questions with his frequent reminders to voters that he ended one war in Iraq and was ending another in Afghanistan, and that Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch. But the Benghazi attack has allowed Republicans to widen their criticism of the president, which primarily had been focused on his record on creating jobs and cutting into America's $16 trillion debt.
Outrage has spiked since Vice President Joe Biden's comment in last week's debate with Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, that "we weren't told" about requests for extra security at the consulate -- just a day after State Department officials told Congress they were aware of, and rejected, several such requests.
Spokesmen for both the State Department and the White House took pains to make clear that Biden's "we" referred to the White House, where such security requests would not go. Clinton backed up Biden's assertion. "The president and the vice president certainly wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals," she said.