WASHINGTON — Democrats rallied behind President Barack Obama in the long-running, bitter dispute over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack, arguing that the White House’s latest email disclosure undermines Republican claims of a cover-up.
“Let’s be honest about what’s happening here,” Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Thursday in speech on the Senate floor. “It’s not about doing all we can to find the truth and making sure it never happens again; it’s about political-gamesmanship and finding someone to blame.”
The White House released some 100 pages of emails and notes on Wednesday about interagency discussions on how to describe the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in which militants struck the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, killing four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the emails “prove there simply was no cover-up.”
“Yet Republicans, with full knowledge of these emails, claimed the White House was hiding the truth,” Reid said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., agreed with Obama that the GOP focus was a “sideshow.”
Yet Republicans made clear they have no plans to back down, with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, telling reporters that the GOP members on five committees were “working overtime” on the Benghazi issue.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of misleading the American people about the circumstances of the attack, playing down a terrorist strike that would reflect poorly on Obama in the heat of a presidential race. Obama has dismissed charges of a cover-up and suggested on Monday that the criticism was politically motivated.
Eight months after the attack, the issue remains a political winner with the Republican base as conservatives have been ferocious in assailing Obama. Rank-and-file GOP members and outside groups have pressured Boehner to appoint a special select committee to investigate. Instead, Republicans are pursuing their own inquiries and promising to call more witnesses to testify publicly, including the veteran diplomat and retired admiral who led an independent review of the attack that widely criticized the State Department’s insufficient security at the facility.
In the latest back-and-forth between the two leaders and a House Republican committee chairman, Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen sent a letter Thursday to the oversight committee chairman saying they will testify in public but not submit to private interviews with staff investigators prior to their testimony.
“The public deserves to hear your questions and answers,” Pickering and Mullen told Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. They offered to appear before the panel either May 28 or June 3.
The emails disclosed on Wednesday underscored the turf battle between the State Department and CIA, as neither one wanted to take the blame for the attack. They also showed the reluctance within the administration about saying anything definitively as officials scrambled to write talking points for lawmakers and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who discussed the attack on Sunday talk shows.
Rice’s widely debunked remarks that cited protests over an anti-Islam video as the cause of the attack fueled the criticism of the administration and later cost her a chance at becoming secretary of state.
According to the 99 pages of emails, then CIA-Director David Petraeus objected to the final talking points because he wanted to see more details revealed to the public.
Petraeus’ deputy, Mike Morell, after a meeting at the White House on Saturday, Sept. 15, scratched out from the CIA’s early talking point drafts mentions of al-Qaida, the experience of fighters in Libya, Islamic extremists and a warning to the Cairo embassy on the eve of the attacks of calls for a demonstration and break-in by jihadists.
Petraeus apparently was displeased by the removal of so much of the material his analysts had proposed for release. The talking points were sent to Rice to prepare her for an appearance on news shows on Sunday, Sept. 16, and also to members of the House Intelligence Committee.
“No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?” Petraeus wrote after receiving Morell’s edited version, developed after an intense back-and-forth among Obama administration officials. “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then.”
The emails were partially blacked out, including removal of names of senders and recipients who are career employees at the CIA and elsewhere.
The emails show that only minor editing was requested by the White House, and most of the objections came from the State Department. “The White House cleared quickly, but State has major concerns,” read an email that a CIA official sent to Petraeus on Friday, Sept. 14.
Critics have highlighted an email by then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that expressed concern that any mention of prior warnings or the involvement of al-Qaida would give congressional Republicans ammunition to attack the administration in the weeks before the presidential election.
That email was among those released by the White House, sent by Nuland on Sept. 14 at 7:39 p.m. to officials in the White House, State Department and CIA. She wrote she was concerned they could prejudice the investigation and be “abused by members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either? Concerned.”
After Nuland sent several more emails throughout that Friday evening expressing further concerns, Jake Sullivan, then-deputy chief of staff at the State Department, said the issues would be worked out at a meeting at the White House on Saturday morning.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters Wednesday that Morell made the changes to the talking points after that meeting because of his own concerns that they could prejudge an FBI investigation into who was responsible for the attacks.
The official said Morell also didn’t think it was fair to disclose the CIA’s advance warning without giving the State Department a chance to explain how it responded. The official spoke on a condition of anonymity without authorization to speak about the emails on the record. Petraeus declined to be interviewed Wednesday.
The intelligence official said Morell was aware of Nuland’s objections but did not make the changes under pressure from the State Department but because he independently shared the concerns.
That is contradicted in an email sent to Rice on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 1:23 p.m. by a member of her staff whose name was blacked out. The email said Morell indicated he would work with Sullivan and Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, to revise the talking points. The intelligence official disputed that assertion and insisted Morell acted alone.
An email from Morell also says he spoke to Petraeus “about State’s deep concerns about mentioning the warnings and the other work done on this.”