President Obama on Monday angrily denied a cover-up by his administration in downplaying the role of terrorism in the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and accused Republican lawmakers of carrying out a partisan “sideshow” by investigating it.
Asserting “there’s no ‘there’ there,” Mr. Obama dismissed concerns about his aides’ editing of the “talking points” that offered the administration’s earliest public explanation for the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The president said he and his administration acknowledged immediately that the attack was an act of terrorism.
“The whole issue of … talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron. “And the fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations.”
But for weeks after the attack and at the height of his re-election campaign in which Mr. Obama boasted that he had al Qaeda “on the run,” the president and his aides repeatedly downplayed terrorism as an explanation, citing instead mob provocation to the trailer to an anti-Islam movie produced in the U.S.
The president’s statements incorporating that story in September included TV appearances on “60 Minutes” and “The View,” as well as a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
• When asked on “60 Minutes” on Sept. 12 whether Benghazi was a terrorist attack, Mr. Obama said “it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans.”
• When asked during a taping of “The View” on Sept. 24 whether the Benghazi attack was terrorism, the president said only, “There’s no doubt that [with] the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action.”
• The next day, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Obama still portrayed the Benghazi attack and other protests in the Arab world as responses to the anti-Islam movie.
Republicans said Mr. Obama’s explanations Monday ignored administration emails that show, from the earliest moments after the Sept. 11 attack, that the CIA identified groups associated with al Qaeda for carrying out the assault with heavy weaponry, including mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The references to terrorists were scrubbed from the administration’s talking points after State Department personnel expressed concerns in exchanges with White House officials.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called Mr. Obama’s latest comments “revisionist history” and contradicted by testimony from, among others, Gregory N. Hicks, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Libya at the time.
“The president can’t have it both ways,” Mr. Issa said on Fox News. “He can’t say that he’s always been honest and then in fact have people such as Ambassador Stevens himself, in real time as he’s being attacked, saying to his No. 2, ‘Greg, we’re under attack.’ Or Gregory Hicks himself telling the operations center at State within minutes that it’s a terrorist attack and he knew from the get-go it was.”
Wave of scandals
Mr. Obama gave his prickly defense of Benghazi after a weekend when his second-term agenda seemed to be in danger of being swamped by scandal.
Right on the heels of a congressional hearing into the diplomats’ deaths, the Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that some auditors gave heightened scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status from tea party and other conservative groups during the 2012 campaign season.
The president, who said the accusations would be “outrageous” if proved, told reporters that he learned of the IRS controversy Friday from news reports. Senior IRS officials knew of the targeting of conservative groups since at least mid-2011, according to a preliminary inspector general’s report to be released this week.