(Corrects date of Benghazi hearing request in ninth paragraph of story published yesterday.)
President Barack Obama said his administration made no attempt to cover up the involvement of terrorists in last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. outpost in Libya, dismissing a congressional inquiry as a “political circus.”
“There’s no ‘there’ there,” Obama said at a White House news conference with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron today.
Obama said he “acknowledged” the day after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi that they were “an act of terrorism,” and that Congress previously saw e-mails between the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the White House about the talking points used by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice that have become a focus of critics.
“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 the news conference.
The attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Today was the first time Obama has addressed the issue since the new round of congressional hearings began last week.
The attack, and the U.S. response, became a flash point in the election campaign in which Obama was being challenged by Republican Mitt Romney. Republicans have continued to criticize the administration since then, accusing White House officials of playing down for political reasons the link to terrorism and warnings from intelligence agencies before the attacks.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, also is drawing renewed Republican criticism over the attack.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, held last week’s hearings. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has vowed that “more hearings and more information” are to come.
Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called for a hearing on the Obama administration’s handling of the attack. The request was made in a May 10 letter to the panel’s chairman, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, from lawmakers including Bob Corker of Tennessee, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Issa said yesterday that he would seek sworn depositions from former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Admiral Mike Mullen, two chairmen of a panel, the Accountability Review Board, that looked into the attacks.
“This is a failure, it needs to be investigated,” Issa said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Republicans have focused their inquiries into why the Obama administration delayed calling the attacks “terrorism.”
Obama today disputed that there was even a delay in labeling the attack as terrorism, referring to a White House statement he made the day after the attacks.
While Obama said last Sept. 12 that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” he didn’t specify if he was speaking about the attacks in Benghazi or making a more general statement.
Republicans have seized on Obama’s failure to use the word “terrorism” and comments Rice made on all five Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16, that the attacks were spontaneous and not premeditated.
In those appearances, she said the Americans died after a protest sparked by an anti-Islam video made in the U.S. was “hijacked” by extremists. The video had prompted protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and Yemen.
Republican critics, focusing on on Rice’s remarks, accused the administration of trying to play down the link to terrorism to bolster Obama’s record amid a presidential campaign.
E-mails obtained by ABC News show that the talking points used by Rice, originally drafted by the CIA, underwent at least 12 revisions with input from the State Department and other administration officials.
The original draft by the CIA included the portrayal of the attack as having been “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo” over the anti-Islamic video, which the administration has acknowledged was incorrect. It also said that “Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaeda participated in the attack,” citing the group Ansar al-Sharia.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged removing references to the terrorist group, saying it could “prejudice the investigation,” according to ABC.
Still, on Sept. 19, Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, told a congressional hearing that the U.S. is “looking at indications” that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaeda or its North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Obama cited Olsen’s testimony three days after Rice’s appearances to argue that showed there was no attempt to cover up the involvement of terrorists.
“Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days?” Obama said.
Administration officials have defended their editing process, saying that the talking points were crafted just four days after the attack as intelligence agencies were still sorting through information about the cause and perpetrators.
At today’s press conference, Obama again took responsibility for the loss of the diplomats’ lives, and pledged to work with anyone in Congress who wanted to improve security at diplomatic facilities. In defending his administration’s initial response, he said “nobody understood exactly what was taking place” in the first few days.
“Here’s what we know. Americans died in Benghazi,” he said. “What we also know is, clearly they were not in a position where they were adequately protected.” The recommendations from the panel headed by Pickering and Mullen “are being implemented as we speak,” Obama said.
Republicans are using the death of four Americans for political gain and fundraising, Obama said.
“If anybody out there wants to actually focus on how we make sure something like this does not happen again, I am happy to get their advice and information and counsel,” he said.
Republicans such as Senator John McCain of Arizona for months have portrayed the administration’s account of the attack as intentionally misleading.
“I’ve known it was a cover-up for a long time,” McCain, his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said in an interview last week. “The narrative of the presidential campaign was that Osama bin Laden was dead, al-Qaeda was ‘on the run,’ decimated, and this act obviously was only from a spontaneous demonstration.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has compared it to the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office.
To contact the reporters on this story: Hans Nichols in Washington at email@example.com; Roger Runningen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at email@example.com