Obama Tries to Put Benghazi Back on the Fringe

Obama's remarks were an attempt to knock the issue off the front page and back to the fringe. Instead his approach may add fuel to the fire

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

British Prime Minister David Cameron listens as President Barack Obama speaks during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 13, 2013

President Barack Obama angrily batted away questions on Monday about his Administration’s response to the Benghazi attack, calling the recent furor over edited talking points a “sideshow.”

Less than a week after emotional testimony in the House of Representatives brought the conservative obsession with Benghazi into the mainstream, Obama tried to contain the damage by framing the GOP focus on the attack as politically driven. “We dishonor [the victims] when we turn things like this into a political circus,” Obama said during a peevish joint press conference at the White House with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

A week after the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Libya questioned the Administration’s official account of efforts to help the victims of the Sept. 11, 2012 assault, Obama tried to use his frustration to deflect new revelations that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland edited intelligence-community talking points in the days after the attack to downplay potential security failures. “Suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story,” the President added, saying the talking points reflected what he was being told by intelligence officials. “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

“The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow,” Obama said, noting that the Administration called it an act of terrorism almost from the start. “Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic.”

In November, White House press secretary Jay Carney said only a small, semantic change had been made to the talking points. With his Administration’s credibility under assault, Obama spent 918 words arguing that the allegations were not to be believed, and accused Republicans of playing politics. “They’ve used it for fundraising,” he said.

Until last week, the focus on the Benghazi attack had been the bailiwick of conservative news outlets and bloggers. Obama’s remarks were an attempt to knock the issue off the front page and back to the fringe. Instead his approach may add fuel to the fire.

Obama’s full remarks on Benghazi:

With respect to Benghazi, we’ve now seen this argument that’s been made by some folks primarily up on Capitol Hill for months now. And I’ve just got to say, here’s what we know. Americans died in Benghazi. What we also know is, clearly they were not in a position where they were adequately protected. The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism. And what I pledged to the American people was that we would find out what happened, we would make sure that it did not happen again, and we would make sure that we held accountable those who had perpetrated this terrible crime.

And that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do. And over the last several months, there was a review board headed by two distinguished Americans, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering, who investigated every element of this.

And what they discovered was some pretty harsh judgments in terms of how we had worked to protect consulates and embassies around the world. They gave us a whole series of recommendations. Those recommendations are being implemented as we speak.

The whole issue of this — of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow. The — what we have been very clear about throughout was that immediately after this event happened, we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had been — how it had occurred, what the motivations where. It happened at the same time as we had seen attacks on U.S. embassies in Cairo as a consequence of this film. And nobody understood exactly what was taking place during the course of those first few days.

And the e-mails that you allude to were provided by us to congressional committees. They reviewed them several months ago, concluded that in fact there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used. And suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story. There’s no ‘there’ there. Keep in mind, by the way, these so-called talking points that were prepared for Susan Rice, five, six days after the event occurred, pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at that time in my presidential daily briefing.

And keep in mind that two to three days after Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday shows, using these talking points, which have been the source of all this controversy, I sent up the head of our national counterterrorism center, Matt Olsen — up to Capitol Hill and specifically said it was an act of terrorism and that extremist elements inside of Libya had been involved in it.

So if this was some effort on our part to try to downplay what had happened or tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing that three days later, we end up putting out all the information that, in fact, has now served as the basis for everybody recognizing that this was a terrorist attack and that it may have included elements that were planned by extremists inside of Libya. Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic.

And the fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations. We’ve had folks who have challenged Hillary Clinton’s integrity, Susan Rice’s integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering’s integrity; it’s a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks. They’ve used it for fundraising and frankly, you know, if anybody out there wants to actually focus on how we make sure something like this does not happen again, I am happy to get their advice and information and counsel.

But the fact of the matter is, these four Americans, as I said, right when it happened, were people I send into the field.

And I’ve been very clear about taking responsibility for the fact that we were not able to prevent their deaths. And we are doing everything we can to make sure we prevent it, in part because there are still diplomats around the world who are in very dangerous, difficult situations. And we don’t have time to be playing these kinds of political games here in Washington. We should be focused on what are we doing to protect them.

And that’s not easy, by the way, and it’s going to require resources and tough judgments and tough calls. And there are a whole bunch of diplomats out there who know that they’re in harm’s way, and there are threat streams that come through every so often with respect to our embassies and our consulates. And that’s not just us, by the way. The British have to deal with the same thing.

And we’ve got a whole bunch of people in the State Department who consistently say, you know what? I’m willing to step up. I’m willing to put myself in harm’s way because I think that this mission is important in terms of serving the United States and advancing our interests around the globe.

And so we — we dishonor them when, you know, we turn things like this into a political circus. What happened was tragic. It was carried out by extremists inside of Libya. We are out there trying to hunt down the folks who carried this out, and we’re trying to make sure that we fix the system so that it doesn’t happen again.