WASHINGTON - The White House on Wednesday denied that a staff member's email three days after the deadly attack on the U.S. mission at Benghazi, Libya, was actually about the attack. Critics have branded the electronic missive as evidence that the Obama administration sought to deceive the public about the true circumstances surrounding the deaths of four Americans during the final months of the 2012 presidential campaign.
"It was explicitly not about Benghazi," press secretary Jay Carney told journalists during his daily briefing at the White House. "It was about the overall situation in the region, the Muslim world, where you saw protests outside of embassy facilities across the region, including in Cairo, Sana'a, Khartoum and Tunis."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has called the email a "smoking gun" that "shows political operatives in the White House working to create a political narrative at odds with the facts."
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans died in the attack on Sept. 11, 2012. Republicans contend that President Barack Obama, eager to claim in an election year that al-Qaida and terrorists in general were on the run, misled Americans by linking the Benghazi attack to protests over an anti-Islamic video when he knew otherwise.
The intelligence community compiled its own talking points for members of Congress that suggested the Benghazi attack stemmed from protests in Cairo and elsewhere over the anti-Islamic video rather than an assault by extremists. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, used those talking points during her appearances on Sunday news shows following the attack. However, the CIA's former deputy director, Mike Morrell, later said he had deleted from the talking points the references to terrorism warnings to avoid showing up the State Department, not for political reasons.
Administration officials later corrected their description of the attack, and Obama himself referred to "act of terror" in several speeches in the two days following the attack yet also referred to the video at times in other remarks. On Sept. 20, Carney said it was "self-evident" that it had been a terrorist attack, but Obama didn't use the term "act of terrorism" for some time.
The email from Ben Rhodes, then the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications at the White House, was dated Sept. 14, the Friday before Rice appeared on the Sunday news programs. The watchdog group Judicial Watch obtained the email and 40 others through a Freedom of Information request and posted them Tuesday on its website.
The email's subject line reads, "Prep call with Susan: Saturday at 4:00 p.m. EST." Among the list of goals was "to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy failure." The email goes on to list a half-dozen points of discussion, including Obama's actions "since we began to see protests in response to this Internet video" and administration response to security concerns around the world, relations with governments in the region, the U.S. condemnation of the anti-Islamic video and efforts to have other world leaders speak out against violence.
"This document, as I said, was explicitly not about Benghazi, but about the general dynamic in the Arab -- or in the Muslim world at the time," Carney said Wednesday. "So I would also point out that the document itself states explicitly that Ambassador Rice is not on the Sunday shows to talk politics. This was part of our effort to explain our views both as a matter of policy and as a matter of what was happening on the ground with regards to the protests that were underway around the region."
Asked why the Rhodes email was only now being released, Carney said the email was not about the attack and thus was not included in the thousands of pages of material about the attack that had been turned over to investigators.
In an interview Tuesday with the website Newmax, Graham said: "Their goal was not to tell the truth about what actually happened. ... They did not want to provide the best information available. Instead, we were provided the most beneficial political story for President Obama."
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told Newsmax: "This was a cover-up, and these e-mails only continue to confirm my belief."
In a statement Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, accused the White House of being evasive and not cooperating with House efforts to investigate the attack and the U.S. response.
"Four Americans lost their lives in Benghazi, and this White House has gone to extraordinary lengths to mislead, obstruct and obscure what actually took place," Boehner said. "I am appalled to learn that the administration concealed relevant documents after the House subpoenaed all emails related to the misleading talking points. When four Americans die at the hands of terrorists, the families of the victims - and the American people - deserve the full, unvarnished truth and nothing less. Instead, this White House been callously dismissive of our efforts to get answers."