Obama dismissed those allegations, saying, “The whole issue of the talking points, frankly, has been a sideshow.”
The CIA prepared the talking points for lawmakers and gave them to Rice for use on Sunday talk shows. They said that the attack appeared to have emerged from a spontaneous protest outside the consulate ignited by a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo over a crude online anti-Islam video. In fact, no protest took place in Benghazi.
Internal administration emails leaked last week showed that the talking points went through 12 drafts, and that the reference to the protest was in all of the versions. But the emails also revealed that the State Department sought to shield its leadership from congressional criticism for failing to boost security in Benghazi by pushing to have removed from the talking points references to al Qaida and U.S. intelligence warnings of growing violence in Libya.
Obama pointed out that the review by Pickering and Mullen criticized the department’s leadership for the security lapses. And, he added, three days after Rice’s television appearances, he sent Matthew Olsen, the head of the National Counter-Terrorism Center, to testify to a Senate committee that the attacks were “an act of terrorism.”
“So if this was some effort to downplay what happened or to tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing that three days later we end up putting out the information that, in fact, has now served as the basis for everybody recognizing that this was a terrorist attack,” he said. “Who executes some sort of coverup or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic.”
Obama expressed surprise over the outcry over the emails. The administration provided them to the congressional committees, which concluded “several months ago . . . that there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used,” he said. “Suddenly . . . this gets spun up as if there’s something new to this story. There’s no ‘there’ there.”
House Speaker John Boeher, R-Ohio., disputed Obama’s assertion, pointing out in a statement that “the improper drafting and handling of the administration’s talking points” was a key finding of an Republic report released on April 23.
Boehner also quoted Pickering as saying Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that the internal State Department review didn’t examine the drafting of the talking points. Moreover, Boehner said, the “entire State Department leadership knew the day after the attack” that it was staged by extremists.
“The president may want Americans to believe there’s no ‘there’ there, but he can’t hide from the facts,” said Boehner. “House Republicans are determined to get to the truth and make sure that such a tragedy will never happen again.”
The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is spearheading the GOP investigation, said he’d written to Pickering and Mullen asking them to submit to transcribed private interviews “in anticipation of a public hearing” on the internal State Department review.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that the three State Department officials who testified at last week’s hearing criticized the review “as ‘incomplete’ and flawed because (it) did not interview key witnesses and failed to hold senior officials accountable.”
The committee must “understand whether the criticisms of the (review) that we heard . . . are valid,” Issa said in his letter to Pickering.
Pickering, appearing on Sunday talk shows, rejected the charges, disputed Issa’s contention that he and Mullen had refused to testify last week, and defended a decision not to interview Clinton.
“We knew where the responsibility rested,” he said, referring to a finding that lower-level officials failed to improve security despite repeated requests from Stevens and others.