Press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that a newly-revealed email showing a White House official preparing then-U.S. ambassador Susan Rice for television interviews was not explicitly in reference to the terror attack in Benghazi.
"The email and the talking points were not about Benghazi," Carney said. "They were about the general situation in the Muslim world."
A set of documents obtained by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request included an email from deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes to other senior White House and administration officials outlining “goals” for Rice’s Sunday talk show appearances following the attack.
In the email, Rhodes said Rice should “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
Rhodes also wrote that the White House hoped the appearance would “reinforce the president and administration's strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges."
Republicans have seized on the document to argue that the White House was responsible Rice's comments during the interviews. On the Sunday shows, Rice suggested that the violence in Benghazi grew spontaneously out of protests over an anti-Islam YouTube video. The administration later said intelligence indicated the Benghazi attack was deliberate and organized.
On Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Trump offers sympathy for those charged with Jan. 6 offenses Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-S.C.) called the documents a "smoking gun."
"It shows political operatives in the White House working to create a political narrative at odds with the facts," Graham said. "Their goal was not to tell the truth about what actually happened. They did not want to provide the best information available. Instead, we were provided the most beneficial political story for President Obama."
"This is ample evidence of the politicization of this whole tragedy of the loss of four brave Americans," added Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (R-Ariz.).
But Carney maintained Wednesday that the email highlighting the anti-Islam video only sought to explain the general unrest in the region, and not the Benghazi attack.
"It was explicitly not about Benghazi," Carney said. "It was about the overall situation in the region, the Muslim world, where you saw protests outside of embassy facilities across the region, including in Cairo, Sanaa, Khartoum and Tunis. And the so-called talking points around Benghazi, as you know because it's been substantially reported on, were prepared by the CIA."
Carney went on to say that the email was merely evidence the White House was preparing Rice to discuss "the overall issue of unrest in the Muslim world." He read network promotions that aired ahead of Rice's interviews to demonstrate that the other protests were of interest.
"This was part of our effort to explain our views, both as a matter of policy and as a matter of what was happening on the ground with regards to the protests that were underway around the region," Carney said.
The White House spokesman also maintained the Rhodes email had not been turned over to congressional investigators sooner because it was not directly related to Benghazi.
A representative for House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) accused the State Department of “hiding this email and other documents” requested by the committee in a statement Wednesday to The Daily Beast.
“It is disturbing that this highly important email showing a White House role in pushing a false narrative was only turned over after it was discovered by the Department’s FOIA office in response to a specific request. While he had promised cooperation, by hiding subpoenaed documents from Congress, Secretary [John] Kerry is failing to meet his legal obligations,” said committee staff director Frederick Hill.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also questioned if the White House was seeking to protect former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports MORE, a possible 2016 contender, from the Benghazi fallout.
“It is outrageous that it took a federal judge to force the White House to comply with the law,” Priebus said in a statement. “If the White House felt this talking points memo was classified, what else don’t we know about Benghazi and is all of this stonewalling just to protect Hillary Clinton?”
The White House also defended Rhodes' role in preparing Rice for the appearance, despite Republican criticism that the email demonstrates the administration was concerned about the political fallout.
“As is the case for every Sunday … when other administration officials go out, documents are prepared that anticipate questions from the press and provide answers based on our policy and our best understanding of what's happening at the time," Carney said. "That's standard operating procedure."
Kristina Wong contributed.
This story was updated at 3:14 p.m.