Republican lawmakers on Thursday compared President Barack Obama's White House to the secretive Nixon administration, denouncing its response to the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
On Wednesday a conservative group published a White House email it had obtained after a legal challenge and which critics say shows an attempt to put a political spin on the deadly assault.
In the email, Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes tells Susan Rice — then the U.S. envoy to the United Nations — to blame the attack on local anger in Benghazi over an anti-Muslim video on the Internet.
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It has since become clear the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the mission — which cost the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens — was planned by armed militants.
In the email, obtained by Judicial Watch and dated Sept. 14, 2012, Rhodes laid out talking points and goals for Rice in her planned appearances on several major U.S. talk shows the next day.
She was asked "to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, not a broader failure of policy."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday after the Rhodes email was first made public that it referred to protests in the Arab world as a whole, and not specifically to the Benghazi attack.
But the attack and Rice's media appearances took place at the height of Obama's successful re-election campaign — a campaign in which he made great play of having put al-Qaida on the back foot.
Republican lawmakers accuse the White House of having tried to cover up the organized nature of the attack, carried out by Libyan Islamist extremists with suspected al-Qaida ties or sympathies.
The administration, in part through Rice's early public statements, said the attack was provoked by an anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube. But this version of events was quickly proven false.
Congress launched hearings and thousands of documents were turned over, but the email from Rhodes had not been revealed, despite requests from the House of Representatives.
"It is disturbing and perhaps criminal that these documents, that documents like these were hidden by the Obama administration," said Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who chairs a House committee charged with overseeing and auditing the White House.
"The American people have learned that you cannot believe what the White House says, you cannot believe what the spokespeople say, and you cannot believe what the president says," Issa said.
"The facts are coming out that in fact, this administration has knowingly withheld documents pursuant to congressional subpoenas in violation of any reasonable transparency or historical precedent, at least since Richard Milhous Nixon."
Nixon resigned as president in disgrace in 1974 after the Watergate scandal broke over illegal activities, and attempted cover-ups, by his administration.
Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah became visibly angry in a hearing Thursday as he described how it was clear the White House was the source of the claim that a video was responsible for that attack.
Noting that earlier investigations revealed that military commanders became aware of what was actually happening, Chaffetz asked retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier Gen. Robert Lovell: "How quickly did you come to the conclusion that you believed they were al-Qaida affiliates or al-Qaida themselves involved and engaged in this attack?"
"Very, very soon," Lovell replied. "When we were still in the very early, early hours of this activity."
"Was it a video?" Chaffetz probed.
"No, sir," Lovell replied.
Lovell was monitoring the attack from U.S. Africa Command's headquarters in Germany. He says it was clear the attack was hostile action.
"The scandal that is here, that some choose to ignore as a phony scandal, is the fact that the CIA, the CIA station chief, the military themselves — you have the person sitting in front of us who's the head of intelligence — he's looking at the intelligence," Chaffetz exclaimed. "They come to the conclusion that it's Ansar al-Sharia."
"And then you also have the Department of State telling the Libyans that it was Ansar al-Sharia," he continued. "None of them think it's a video. None of them."
"The military, the CIA, the CIA station chief, the State Department, all of them; the facts at the time, Mr. Chairman, the facts do not point to a video," Chaffetz concluded. "That only comes from the White House."
The White House, meanwhile, continued to deny that the email was about Benghazi.
"It was explicitly not about Benghazi," Carney told journalists during his daily briefing in the White House. "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, Sana'a, Khartoum and Tunis."
South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham called the email a "smoking gun" that "shows political operatives in the White House working to create a political narrative at odds with the facts."
The intelligence community compiled its own talking points for members of Congress that suggested the Benghazi attack stemmed from protests in Cairo and elsewhere over the anti-Islamic video rather than an assault by extremists.
Rice used those talking points during her appearances on Sunday news shows following the attack. A CIA official later said he had deleted from the talking points the references to terrorism warnings to avoid showing up the State Department, not for political reasons.
Administration officials later corrected their description of the attack, and Obama himself referred to "act of terror" in several speeches in the two days following the attack, yet also referred to the video at times in other remarks. On Sept. 20, Carney said it was "self-evident" that it had been a terrorist attack, but Obama didn't use the term "act of terrorism" for some time.
The email's subject line reads, "Prep call with Susan: Saturday at 4:00 p.m. EST." Among the list of goals was "to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy failure." The email goes on to list a half-dozen points of discussion, including Obama's actions "since we began to see protests in response to this Internet video" and administration response to security concerns around the world, relations with governments in the region, the U.S. condemnation of the anti-Islamic video and efforts to have other world leaders speak out against violence.
"This document, as I said, was explicitly not about Benghazi, but about the general dynamic in the Arab — or in the Muslim — world at the time," Carney said Wednesday. "So I would also point out that the document itself states explicitly that Ambassador Rice is not on the Sunday shows to talk politics. 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 under way around the region."
Asked why the Rhodes email was only now being released, Carney said the email was not about the attack and thus was not included in the thousands of pages of material about the attack that had been turned over to investigators.
In an interview Tuesday with Newsmax, 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."
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Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma told Newsmax: "This was a cover-up, and these emails only continue to confirm my belief."
In a statement Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio accused the White House of being evasive and not cooperating with House efforts to investigate the attack and the U.S. response.
"Four Americans lost their lives in Benghazi, and this White House has gone to extraordinary lengths to mislead, obstruct, and obscure what actually took place," Boehner said. "I am appalled to learn that the administration concealed relevant documents after the House subpoenaed all emails related to the misleading talking points.
"When four Americans die at the hands of terrorists, the families of the victims — and the American people — deserve the full, unvarnished truth and nothing less. Instead, this White House been callously dismissive of our efforts to get answers."
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