President Barack Obama during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.
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