WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday dismissed allegations by Republicans that newly released emails prove the administration’s response to the 2012 attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, was politically calculated.
Republicans say the emails released Tuesday by a conservative watchdog group are the long sought after “smoking gun” that show the administration tried to spin the tragedy to minimize damage to President Barack Obama in the final months of his 2012 re-election campaign.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a briefing that the emails released Tuesday by Washington-based Judicial Watch weren’t about Benghazi specifically but instead referred to a different set of talking points that addressed unrest across the region.
“The email and the talking points were not about Benghazi,” Carney said. “They were about the general situation in the Muslim world.”
The emails were released to Judicial Watch in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the State Department. They were not among dozens of emails that the White House released last year in an effort to clear itself of allegations that officials had tried to escape blame for the incident.
Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said the idea that the emails are not about Benghazi is “ludicrous” because his organization sued for Benghazi documents specifically.
The attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The following Sunday, Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on five talk shows that the attack was a “spontaneous reaction” to a protest in Cairo prompted by anger about an anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube, a claim that turned out to be false.
“The best information and the best assessment we have today is that in fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack, that what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video,” Rice said on Fox News on Sept. 16, 2012.
Carney said Rice’s comments were based on the best information the administration had at the time. He said she was working off of two different sets of talking points.
One, produced by the CIA for lawmakers and White House officials, blamed the attacked on an impromptu demonstration.
In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee earlier this month, Michael Morell, who in 2012 was the deputy CIA director, said that although the agency believed al Qaida-linked individuals were involved from the beginning, the agency’s initial assessment was that the attack in Benghazi was a spontaneous event inspired by the breach by protesters of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. But there was no mention of the YouTube video defaming the Prophet Muhammad.
Republicans have seized on Rice’s explanation, which mentions the video while the CIA talking points did not. The protests in Cairo were widely attributed to anger over the video.
Morell testified that it wasn’t until Sept. 18, two days after Rice’s TV appearances, that the CIA got the Libyan government’s assessment of video footage from the Libyan consulate’s security cameras, which showed the front of the building just before the attack with no sign of protesters.
“It became clear that we needed to revisit our analysis,” Morell told lawmakers.
The second set of talking points, written by the White House communications staff to prepare Rice for her television appearances, sought to deflect criticism from the president’s policy in the region as violent protests erupted across the Middle East.
In the emails released Tuesday by Judicial Watch, a White House official listed goals for Rice’s public appearance, including “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy,” and “to reinforce the president and administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”
That official, Ben Rhodes, is the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and speech writing.
Republicans said the emails reveal that the White House put politics before transparency on Benghazi.
“It is outrageous that it took a federal judge to force the White House to comply with the law,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “If the White House felt this talking points memo was classified, what else don’t we know about Benghazi.”
Priebus said the White House is stonewalling to protect Hillary Clinton, who at the time of the attack was secretary of state and is now a leading contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Carney said the newly disclosed emails weren’t released before because they were not specifically about Benghazi.
He criticized what he called “an intense effort to politicize this.”
“The real issue here has always been making sure that what happened in Benghazi can’t happen again,” he said.