White House fires back at Boehner; Libya delay would have 'cost lives'

The White House fired back Thursday at criticism over the Libya military mission, saying lawmakers were briefed and consulted at length before air strikes began.

White House press secretary Jay Carney read off a list of dates when administration officials briefed members or testified on the Hill during an off-camera briefing held the day after President Obama returned from a trip to South and Central America.

The press secretary also said the U.S. had to act quickly when air strikes began Saturday because further delay would have “cost lives.”

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Separately, the White House set up a classified briefing for Wednesday that all lawmakers are invited to attend. The briefing, which is co-hosted by House Democrats and Republicans, will be presented by Defense Sec. Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

Carney said the president believes it is important to consult with Congress but that immediate action was required in Libya.

“He also believes he’s the commander in chief whose leadership requires him to take action when action will save lives and delaying action will cost lives,” Carney said.

Had Obama and the international community not acted, Carney said Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi would now control the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and many civilians would have been killed.

Criticism of the Libyan mission from GOP lawmakers has ramped up over the last few days, with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) slamming Obama in a Wednesday letter to the White House for not clearly stating the goals of the Libyan mission before launching the attacks. Boehner ripped the White House for offering a “sometimes contradictory” case for the war.

The Speaker’s letter asked a number of questions about the military action, including its possible costs and its goals.

Carney insisted Thursday that Obama has answered Boehner’s questions, “especially the ones about what the mission is and what it isn't.”

“We understand it needs to be explained, which is why the president has explained it,” Carney said.

Carney said the president believes questions asked by Boehner and other lawmakers have been legitimate, adding again that those questions “have by and large been answered.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Thursday also criticized the White House over the mission and said many in Congress felt left out because of what the second-ranking Republican said was a lack of consultations.

He said the White House seemed more concerned with talking to U.S. allies in the run-up to the strikes than with talking to lawmakers.

The public wants to know, “Where is the leadership, what is the endgame here, where is Washington taking us?” Cantor said.

Obama launched the strikes just as Congress went into a weeklong recess. The House and Senate resume next week, but Cantor said he had not had “in-depth discussions” on whether the House might vote on a resolution next week that would press the administration for goals on Libya.

Carney said the administration continues to consult with NATO and the international community about transferring command and control.

Carney repeated that the administration is “still operating” under the timeline of transferring the lead in Libya in a matter of “days not weeks.”

“We will resolve very shortly the issue of command and control,” Carney said.

Speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Carney told reporters at the White House that for it to qualify as weeks, the mission would have to last for two weeks.

“We're still in days,” Carney said. “So we're not even half-way.”

While it is still unclear who will assume control of the operation, Carney insisted that U.S. forces will not lead “what we would probably describe as phase two.”

Whenever a transition does come, the U.S. will continue to operate in a “support and assist role” that could include communications jamming and intelligence operations.

“But we will not be leading the effort,” Carney said.

U.S. military involvement “will have been at its most intense” in the early days of the strikes, Carney said.

This story was updated at 4:07 p.m.

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