Obama lashes out over Benghazi ‘sideshow,’ GOP uncowed

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 13, 2013 

— President Barack Obama lashed out Monday at the Republican investigation of last year’s terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, denouncing questions about administration talking points as a “sideshow” and accusing Republicans of using the “political circus” to raise cash.

The Republicans showed no sign of letting up. They announced that they will privately interview – in preparation for a public hearing – retired Amb. Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen about whether an internal State Department review they oversaw was incomplete and failed to hold senior officials accountable for security failings in Benghazi.

Obama made his remarks at a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron. They were his first since a GOP-led House of Representatives hearing reignited charges last week that the administration bungled the response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, tried to cover up its missteps and misled the public about the involvement of al Qaida-linked extremists.

“The fact that this keeps getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations,” said Obama. He asserted that Republicans have unjustly tarred then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is the early 2016 presidential race favorite, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was dropped from consideration as Clinton’s successor, as well as Pickering and Mullen, the former chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff.

“We’ve had folks who have challenged Hillary Clinton’s integrity, Susan Rice’s integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering’s integrity,” said Obama. “It’s a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks. They’ve used it for fund-raising.”

He apparently was referring to an online National Republican Congressional Committee fund-raising appeal that pictures Clinton and Obama and says “Benghazi Was a Coverup.” Also, American Crossroads, a political action committee founded by former Bush adviser Karl Rove, on Sunday began airing its first televised attack ad for the 2016 campaign, accusing Clinton of a taking part in a coverup of the assaults that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The Republicans also are showing disrespect for State Department personnel who “consistently” volunteer for assignments in hazardous parts of the globe, Obama said, adding, “We dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus.”

Obama acknowledged that U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya were not adequately protected as chaos and violence grew in the aftermath of the 2011 overthrow of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department communications specialist, died when armed Islamists, some linked to al Qaida, stormed the poorly guarded compound that temporarily housed the U.S. consulate in Libya’s second largest city. Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, former Navy SEALs working as CIA security guards, died the next morning from a mortar shell fired at a CIA annex where survivors of the consulate assault were taken.

The investigation by five Republican-run House committees has focused to a large extent on administration talking points that critics charge were deliberately skewed to hide the fact that the attacks were organized by al Qaida-linked militants as Obama ran for re-election in part on his counterterrorism record.

Obama dismissed those allegations, saying, “The whole issue of the talking points, frankly, has been a sideshow.”

The CIA prepared the talking points for lawmakers and gave them to Rice for use on Sunday talk shows. They said that the attack appeared to have emerged from a spontaneous protest outside the consulate ignited by a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo over a crude online anti-Islam video. In fact, no protest took place in Benghazi.

Internal administration emails leaked last week showed that the talking points went through 12 drafts, and that the reference to the protest was in all of the versions. But the emails also revealed that the State Department sought to shield its leadership from congressional criticism for failing to boost security in Benghazi by pushing to have removed from the talking points references to al Qaida and U.S. intelligence warnings of growing violence in Libya.

Obama pointed out that the review by Pickering and Mullen criticized the department’s leadership for the security lapses. And, he added, three days after Rice’s television appearances, he sent Matthew Olsen, the head of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, to testify to a Senate committee that the attacks were “an act of terrorism.”

“So if this was some effort to downplay what happened or to tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing that three days later we end up putting out the information that, in fact, has now served as the basis for everybody recognizing that this was a terrorist attack,” he said. “Who executes some sort of coverup or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic.”

Obama expressed surprise over the outcry over the emails. The administration provided them to the congressional committees, which concluded “several months ago . . . that there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used,” he said. “Suddenly . . . this gets spun up as if there’s something new to this story. There’s no ‘there’ there.”

House Speaker John Boeher, R-Ohio., disputed Obama’s assertion, pointing out in a statement that “the improper drafting and handling of the administration’s talking points” was a key finding of an Republic report released on April 23.

Boehner also quoted Pickering as saying Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that the internal State Department review didn’t examine the drafting of the talking points. Moreover, Boehner said, the “entire State Department leadership knew the day after the attack” that it was staged by extremists.

“The president may want Americans to believe there’s no ‘there’ there, but he can’t hide from the facts,” said Boehner. “House Republicans are determined to get to the truth and make sure that such a tragedy will never happen again.”

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is spearheading the GOP investigation, said he’d written to Pickering and Mullen asking them to submit to transcribed private interviews “in anticipation of a public hearing” on the internal State Department review.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that the three State Department officials who testified at last week’s hearing criticized the review “as ‘incomplete’ and flawed because (it) did not interview key witnesses and failed to hold senior officials accountable.”

The committee must “understand whether the criticisms of the (review) that we heard . . . are valid,” Issa said in his letter to Pickering.

Pickering, appearing on Sunday talk shows, rejected the charges, disputed Issa’s contention that he and Mullen had refused to testify last week, and defended a decision not to interview Clinton.

“We knew where the responsibility rested,” he said, referring to a finding that lower-level officials failed to improve security despite repeated requests from Stevens and others.

Email: jlanday@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jonathanlanday

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