By Justin Sink - 01/23/13 06:25 PM EST
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday defended Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assertion that the administration's initial claims the Benghazi attack was the result of a violent protest — rather than terrorism — made no "difference" in the big picture of the tragedy.
Carney, speaking to reporters at the White House daily briefing, said Clinton was referring to "an obvious political obsession over a series of talking points that again bears no relevance on the central issues" around the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
"The fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?" Clinton said in response to one question.
Republicans have been highly critical of the White House. They argue that early comments made by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, which suggested the violence was the result of a protest over an anti-Islam video, amounted to a cover-up.
On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) accused Rice of “purposely misleading the American public” about the events preceding the attacks.
Carney said the White House was focused on bringing those responsible to justice and preventing further attacks. The administration believes those goals were more important than Rice's comments, which Carney said bear "no relevance on the ultimate questions."
Carney went on to dismiss Rice's comments as simply "an early assessment that turned out to not be the case."
Clinton also said she was not consulted on whether Rice would appear on the Sunday talk shows following the attack or involved in conversations about tailoring her talking points.
“No … I personally was not focused on talking points," she said. "I was focused on keeping our people safe.”
The normally reserved Clinton described her reaction to the attack as "personal" and insisted that she took responsibility for the administration's handling of the incident, which left four Americans — including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens — dead.
“As I have said many times since Sept. 11, I take responsibility. Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure,” she said.
Still, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Clinton her "answers are not satisfactory to me." Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he would have relieved Clinton of her post. The pair said Clinton had failed to heed warnings about the possibility of an attack in Libya and on the anniversary of Sept. 11.
But Clinton said the warnings were the new reality in an increasingly dangerous world.
"Concerns about terrorism and instability in North Africa are not new. Indeed, they have been a top priority for our entire national-security team. But after Benghazi, we accelerated a diplomatic campaign to increase pressure on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist groups across the region.”