President Barack Obama on Monday furiously dismissed as a "political circus" Republican charges that his administration had misled the public about the Sept. 12, 2012, attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. Obama said the accusations of a cover-up dishonor the memory of the four Americans killed in the onslaught.
"There’s no 'there' there,” Obama insisted during a joint question-and-answer session with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House. "And the fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations."
The president’s angry words came after news reports surfaced Friday that the White House had overseen a process that repeatedly watered down administration talking points on the attack, removing references to possible involvement by al-Qaida and to prior warnings about threats in Benghazi. Republicans have charged that the White House was worried about the potential political fallout from the spectacular terrorist attack during Obama's re-election campaign. The White House has repeatedly denied that it deliberately misled the public.
"The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow," Obama said.
The talking points, which portrayed the attack as evolving from a demonstration of anger at an Internet video that mocked Islam, "pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at that time in my presidential daily briefing," he added, referring to his top-secret morning intelligence review with the CIA.
While protests against the video in Egypt led to an assault on the American embassy in Cairo, officials in Libya never reported a demonstration outside the compound in Benghazi before the assault that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Obama aides have said that the decision to scrub references in the talking points to al-Qaida and another extremist group, Ansar al-Sharia, reflected the intelligence community's uncertainty about the role they played.
"Immediately after this event happened, we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were," Obama said. "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."
The president also pointed to his first public remarks on the attack, in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12, 2012, when he lumped the events in Benghazi in with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes as "acts of terror."
But he and other senior officials declined in subsequent days to label the attack the work of terrorists. And U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice linked the Benghazi assault to the Internet video when she appeared on morning news shows the first Sunday after the attack.
"I’ve just got to say, here’s what we know: Americans died in Benghazi," Obama said. "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 we would find out what happened, we would make sure that it did not happen again," he added, "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."
Obama praised the work of envoys like Stevens and diplomats and other personnel serving overseas today, and declared: "We dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus."
Obama also said he had “sent up” the head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, to Capitol Hill, where Olsen branded Benghazi a “terrorist attack” with possible connections to al-Qaida, including a regional offshoot, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). At the time, Olsen’s testimony was notable in part because of the top Obama aides’ reluctance to brand the Benghazi attack the work of terrorists.
“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," Obama said. "Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days?"
"The whole thing defies logic."
The president also pointed to the State Department-commissioned independent investigation led by retired veteran diplomat Tom Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who produced a scathing report on failures to heed requests for more security in Benghazi.
"What they discovered was some pretty harsh judgments in terms of how we had worked to protect consulates and embassies around the world," Obama said.
Three State Department witnesses, including the No. 2 American diplomat in Libya the night of the attack, have criticized the so-called Accountability Review Board for not pinning the blame on senior State Department officials. And they warned that failure to learn from the attack could leave U.S. diplomats vulnerable in the future.
"Frankly, 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," Obama said.