By Julian Pecquet - 05/13/13 09:55 PM EDT
President Obama on Monday dismissed GOP charges that his administration covered up the truth about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, calling them a politically motivated “side-show” that does “dishonor” to the nation's diplomats.
Days after news reports revealed administration officials removed references to al Qaeda and CIA warnings about security threats to the U.S. mission in talking points shared with the public, Obama sought to paint accusations as a partisan fight.
“We don't have time to be playing these kinds of political games here in Washington. We should be focused on what are we doing to protect them,” Obama said, criticizing the Republican National Campaign Committee for fundraising off the controversy. “We dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus.”
Obama dealt with questions about Benghazi during a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron that also allowed him to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups for tax audits.
By simultaneously calling the IRS’s alleged actions “outrageous” and vowing to take action, Obama sought to make his dismissal of his Benghazi critics more effective.
The president's comments come as Republicans have re-launched their Benghazi investigation amid new revelations, including assertions by Gregory Hicks, the then-deputy chief of mission in Libya that the Pentagon told a special forces team on its way to Benghazi to stand down. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week the scandal could lead to Obama’s impeachment. The Benghazi attack took place weeks before the presidential election, and Republicans say the administration initially sought to cover up the angle of terrorism — and to blame the attack on a mob upset over an anti-Islam film — to protect Obama.
Hicks, a key witness at last week's hearing, told lawmakers that “everybody in the mission thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning.”
Obama said his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was merely offering a still developing intelligence assessment when she addressed the Sunday news shows five days after the attack. The president also pointed out that days after Rice's TV appearances, he sent National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen to testify before the Senate Homeland Security panel that the attacks were acts of terrorism perpetuated by Islamist extremists.
“If this was some effort on our part to try to downplay what had happened, or tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing that three days later, we end up putting out all the information that, in fact, has now served as the basis for everybody recognizing that this was a terrorist attack,” Obama said. “Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic.”
Republicans pounced on Obama's latest effort to dismiss the controversy, arguing email chains show the CIA and State Department were aware it was terrorism a day after the attack.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) in particular objected to the president's assertion that he called the attack an “act of terror” from the get-go, pointing out that he mentioned the anti-Islam film in a speech at the United Nations two weeks after the attack that made no reference to terrorism.
The three senators renewed their call for a Joint Select Committee.
“The administration is spinning the American people and stonewalling Congress,” they said.
The president on Monday also defended the two co-authors of last year's independent review of the administration's response to the attack, calling them “distinguished Americans” who “investigated every element of this.”
Republicans countered that the so-called Accountability Review Board in fact had the narrow mission of uncovering security lapses in order to keep diplomats safe in the future, and did not examine the creation of the talking points.
Republicans also pointed out that they have been critical of the talking points process since the very beginning. Obama asserted Monday that Congress hadn’t made a big deal of who changed the talking points when lawmakers were able to view them in closed session in February.
“Suddenly three days ago, this gets spun up as if there's something new to the story,” Obama said. “There's no there, there.”
In fact, Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office pointed out, the interim report last month by the five committees of jurisdiction in the House took particular umbrage to the talking points.
“In the days following the attacks,” the report found, “White House and senior State Department officials altered accurate talking points drafted by the Intelligence Community in order to protect the State Department.”
This story was posted at 1:02 p.m. and updated at 5:55 p.m.