WASHINGTON — 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 Ambassador 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 Rodham 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 Joint 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 fundraising.”
He apparently was referring to an online National Republican Congressional Committee fundraising 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 taking part in a cover-up of the assaults that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
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.
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.
Obama expressed surprise over the outcry. 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 a Republican report released on April 23.