Obama calls fight over Benghazi talking points political ‘side show’
By Kevin Liptak
WASHINGTON (CNN) — GOP outrage over a changed set of talking points related to September’s attack in Benghazi is a political “side show,” President Barack Obama argued Monday, asserting the tragedy was being used for political gain by his rivals.
The Republicans who claim Obama’s administration was intentionally misleading in the way they characterized the Benghazi attack are ignoring key facts and sullying the memory of the four Americans who died, the president claimed.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of people in the State Department who consistently say, ‘You know what, I’m willing to step up, I’m willing to put myself in harm’s way because I think that this mission is important in terms of serving the United States and advancing our interests around the globe.’ And so we dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus,” he said.
Obama was speaking at a press availability alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, in Washington to discuss next month’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland.
Republicans’ accusations of an administration-led cover up in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack were fueled last week by the release of internal e-mails showing top administration officials scrubbing any mention of al Qaeda from talking points given to members of Congress and Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
The unclassified talking points have become a political flashpoint in a long-running battle between the administration and Republicans, who say that officials knew the attack last September 11 was a planned terror operation while they were telling the public it was an act of violence that grew out of a demonstration over a video produced in the United States that insulted Islam.
That was the story that Rice told five days later when she made the rounds of all five Sunday morning television talk shows.
The attack occurred two months before the November election, in which President Barack Obama’s campaign often pointed out that it had “decimated” al Qaeda.
Obama noted Monday that he referred broadly to “acts of terror” in a Rose Garden statement the day after the attack, and that Republicans pointing to an administration “cover up” were ignoring stated facts by himself and other officials.
“The whole thing defies logic, and the fact that this keeps getting churned out, frankly has a lot to do with political motivations,” Obama said, echoing other Democrats who say the GOP focus on Benghazi is founded in an attempt to discredit former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading 2016 Democratic presidential prospect.
Obama also noted the e-mails released last week had been reviewed by members of Congress months ago, and not flagged at the time as indicative of an attempt to conceal the truth.
“They reviewed them several months ago, and concluded that in fact there was nothing afoul in terms of the process we had used, and suddenly three days ago this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story. There’s no there there,” Obama said.
Over the weekend, Republicans renewed their criticism of the Obama administration for its handling of the Benghazi attack aftermath, claiming an independent review earlier this year didn’t cast a wide enough net in seeking answers to still-outstanding questions.
Critics also questioned why Clinton herself wasn’t assigned more blame in the report.
“Obviously she was the decision maker at the State Department,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, said on CBS “Face the Nation,” adding she was “surprised” Clinton wasn’t probed further.
The co-chair of the review board, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, defended his work on CNN’s “State of the Union,” arguing his panel was charged specifically with investigating security decisions, which he said were not made at Clinton’s level.
Pickering’s report, released late last year, found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” at the State Department in the lead-up to the attack in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead. As a result, four State Department officials were disciplined immediately after the report’s release. One resigned, while three others were placed on administrative leave and relieved of their duties.
Pickering, along with the panel’s other co-chair, former Admiral Mike Mullen, were formally asked for depositions about their board’s practices Monday by Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.