House Speaker John A. Boehner on Thursday called on President Obama to release a cache of emails that Republicans say clearly prove senior White House and State Department officials sought to mislead the American public about the Benghazi terrorist attack during last year’s election campaign.
Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill that the administration now has a chance to clear up some of the lingering questions about when it learned that the attack was indeed “conducted by Islamic terrorists.”
At issue is the extent to which electoral politics may have motivated White House officials to strip any mention of al Qaeda or terrorism from unclassified “talking points” about who the administration thought was behind the Sept. 11 attack.
The talking points were given to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice, who appeared on several Sunday talk shows Sept. 16 — five days after the Benghazi attack. Mrs. Rice characterized the incident as a spontaneous assault that had grown out of a protest against a U.S.-made video denigrating Islam.
Although the talking points have been discussed extensively over the past eight months, one exchange during a dramatic hearing Wednesday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee appears to have triggered a new wave of interest.
During the hearing, Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, claimed at one point to be reading from an email by acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones to other senior State Department and White House officials on Sept. 12 — one day after the Benghazi attack.
COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope
Mr. Gowdy said Mrs. Jones asserted in the email her belief that the group responsible for carrying out the attacks was Ansar al-Shariah, which she said was “affiliated with Islamic terrorists.” It was reported months ago that U.S. officials in Libya had told Washington that Ansar al-Shariah claimed responsibility on the day of the attack.
Reference to the email set off something of a firestorm among Democrats on Thursday. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland the ranking Democrat on the House oversight committee, said the hearing revealed nothing new, and State Department officials asserted that Mr. Gowdy quoted Mrs. Jones’ email inaccurately and out of context.
“One of the concerns is, the way that the email was read, there was a potential inadvertent inaccuracy in the word — use of the word ‘terrorist,’” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
“My understanding is that aspects of this correspondence may have been inadvertently entered into the record incorrectly,” Mr. Ventrell said.
He added that — contrary to Mr. Gowdy’s reading of the email — the word used in the email was not “terrorist,” but “extremist.”
Mr. Gowdy confirmed that the email used the word extremist but blamed that on the department for not releasing the emails, instead letting members and staff examine them only under supervision.
“I’m entirely capable of misreading my own handwriting,” he said.
He also accused the State Department of “playing word games” and wanting “to be politically correct” about Muslim terrorism.
“The broader point is there is not one word [in the email] about a video, not one word about a spontaneous protest,” he said.
Mr. Cummings suggested that Mrs. Jones’ email was intentionally mischaracterized by Republicans in an attempt to “generate an entirely new controversy out of nothing.”
In a statement Thursday evening, Mr. Cummings said “five different congressional committees have had access to this email for months.”
“The email refers to reports that Ansar al-Sharia took credit for the attacks in a Facebook posting, but shortly after the email was sent, the group publicly denied that it was involved in the attack,” he added.
A congressional source on the Democratic side of the House said Ansar al-Shariah denied involvement well before Mrs. Rice said in TV appearances that the attack likely grew out of a protest similar to those at the same time in other Middle Eastern cities.
A final version of the talking points made no mention al Qaeda or Ansar al-Shariah, and instead referred to the Benghazi attackers as “extremists” and in one place even protesters rather than terrorists.
In reference to the talking points Thursday, Mr. Boehner said: “You can characterize it any way you want, but somebody clearly decided they didn’t like the references to Islamic terrorism and made changes in this document.”
Speculation appeared to swirl among Democrats that the goal of House Republicans with regard to Benghazi is to damage former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the event she runs for president in 2016.
Mrs. Clinton has not said whether she intends to run, but a veteran Clinton strategist told The Associated Press on Thursday that “the Republicans are pulling out the stops to manufacture a scandal, but it’s not likely to stick on Hillary Clinton or Democrats in general.”
Also Thursday, former Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly suggested to House Republicans that they subpoena Mrs. Clinton to get the answers they seek. According to Fox News, he said during a Thursday meeting that “I think Hillary should be subpoenaed if necessary.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, stopped short of accusing the Obama administration of outright lying about Benghazi, but he said serious questions remain over why senior officials attempted initially to pin the incident to spontaneous protests rather than terrorism.
“The whole line of the presidential campaign to re-elect Barack Obama was bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda is decimated no terrorist attacks anywhere,” Mr. McCain said during an appearance on Fox News as Wednesday’s hearing was winding down. “Then, of course, this thing happened and it had the capability of disrupting that narrative at a really crucial time in a presidential campaign. That explains some of these inexplicable actions” by the administration.
Momentum continued to mount among Republicans for the creation of a select committee to deepen congressional probes into what occurred in Benghazi and how the administration managed the aftermath.
Congressional aides said 143 House Republicans, but no Democrats, have signed on as co-sponsors to a bill introduced by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, that would create such a committee.
• Shaun Waterman, Seth McLaughlin and Jerry Seper contributed to this report.