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WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House and State Department struggled Tuesday to clarify President Barack Obama's suggestion that last month's deadly shooting at a kosher deli in Paris was random, despite the administration's earlier assertions that the attack was anti-Semitic.
Obama, in describing terror threats during a lengthy interview with the online news site Vox, said the American people were right to be concerned "when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris."
Administration officials at first defended Obama's comments, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying that while the administration was aware of the "motivation" of the gunman, the president was making the point that those killed in the deli "were not targeted by name."
"There were people other than just Jews who were in that deli," Earnest said.
His comments were echoed by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who noted that the four victims of the attack were not all from one background of nationality. She also declined to say whether the attacks were anti-Semitic, deferring to the French government, which has used that language.
Administration critics quickly challenged that explanation, saying Obama was ignoring the gunman's motivations.
"French President Francois Hollande has consistently called the January shooting at the Kosher Deli in Paris an 'appalling anti-Semitic attack,' so why can't the administration do so, too?" Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said. "The administration's inability to speak consistently and clearly about Islamic terror threats reflects not only muddled thinking, but also muddled policies."
Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the statements by Obama and his advisers "send the wrong message to both the Jewish community and the terrorists who are responsible for these heinous acts."
Soon, the administration's spokespeople were taking to Twitter to try to clean up their earlier explanations.
Earnest wrote that the administration's view "has not changed. Terror attack at Paris Kosher market was motivated by anti-Semitism." And Psaki wrote, "We have always been clear that the attack on the kosher grocery store was an anti-Semitic attack that took the lives of innocent people."
The administration's clunky handling of Obama's comments comes on top of earlier criticisms of the president's response to the France attacks.
In the days after the attacks, the White House acknowledged that it erred in not sending a high-level official to attend an anti-terror rally in Paris. While the leaders of nations including Israel, Britain and Germany attended the event, the U.S. was represented by its ambassador to France.
Obama has also faced criticism for not calling the perpetrators of the attacks Islamic extremists, which is how they have been described by some French officials and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The White House has said it avoids using that term because it does not want to give legitimacy to the notion that the attackers were acting on behalf of their religious beliefs.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
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