Speaker Boehner calls for answers from the president on Benghazi attack

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday stepped off the sidelines and called for President Obama to address lingering questions about the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that left an American ambassador dead.

In a lengthy letter to Obama that inserted the top Republican lawmaker squarely into the escalating political controversy surrounding the attack, Boehner criticized shifting stories about the nature of the attack and questioned whether the administration had given enough attention to calls for better security at the consulate. The letter came one day after leaked emails rekindled the debate about who knew what and when about the circumstances of the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

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His letter includes questions about whether Obama spoke to Stevens before the attack about his security concerns. Boehner, who until now had let Senate Republicans and House oversight chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) take the lead in publicly grilling the administration, said Obama had failed so far to answer questions about what happened in Benghazi to the frustration of the public.

“The American public is increasingly reading information contradicting early accounts by your administration of the causes of the events of the day,” Boehner’s letter states.

“In the absence of your direct engagement to clarify these concerns, the public’s frustration and confusion is likely to discredit efforts to achieve our shared goals of justice and accountability for the direct assault on American interests and the deaths of four public servants.”

The comments are in reference to recently leaked emails that show that State Department officials told the administration within two hours of the attack that the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility on Facebook and Twitter. Republicans say those emails raise new questions about the administration's decision to initially say the attack was linked to a protest about an anti-Islam video.

“This thing is getting more and more traction, more and more legs, and it’s getting uglier every day,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence panel, told Fox News on Wednesday. “And I think the thing we need to do is be honest with the American people — and say, here’s what we knew, here’s when we knew it, here’s what the president knew and when the president knew it.”

Not all Republicans see a smoking gun, however.

“When things are unfolding very, very quickly, it’s not always easy to know what is really going on on the ground,” former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told Fox News Wednesday evening. “We don’t have all of the pieces, and I think it’s easy to try and jump to conclusions about what might have happened here. It’s probably better to let the relevant bodies do their work.”

And the top Democrat on the House oversight panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), pointed out Thursday that Ansar al-Sharia denied responsibility for the attack, raising doubts about the provenance and accuracy of the social network postings.

“Over and over again, Republicans have launched partisan accusations based on limited and inaccurate information, and in this case Chairman Issa disregarded conflicting reports that Ansar al-Sharia disavowed responsibility for the attack less than 24 hours later,” Cummings said in a statement. “It’s time to stop shamelessly politicizing this tragedy and let the independent investigation complete its work without interference.”

Republicans, including Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, have hammered the administration over its account of the incident, something Boehner repeated in the letter.

“Why did the Administration fail to account for facts that were known at the time?,” he asks. “I also request that you explain how the Administration’s policy response has shifted now that it is publicly acknowledging the attack as an act of terrorism and not a result of an escalating protest against an internet video.”

Boehner specifically asks whether Obama himself was briefed by Stevens about the evolving security and political environment in Libya, or whether Stevens made any direct observations to the president about security.

The Speaker also asks about military options the administration considered in the immediate aftermath of the attack. “Can you explain what options were presented to you or your staff, and why it appears assets were not allowed to be pre-positioned, let alone utilized?” Boehner asks. “If these reports are accurate, the artificial constraint on the range of options at your disposal would be deeply troubling.”

The Speaker includes five lengthy questions, regarding the nature of intelligence, how the administration came to believe that the attack was caused by an anti-Islamic video, and how the U.S. would respond to a terror attack on a U.S. mission in another country.

He also raises pointed questions about why the news media were able to access the burned out consulate and interview witnesses – and participants – long before U.S. law enforcement authorities. FBI investigators did not reach Benghazi until three weeks after the attack, and stayed less than 24 hours on-site because of security concerns.

— This story was updated at 6:04 p.m.