White House rebuffs Boehner on Benghazi-related emails

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

President Barack Obama's standoff with congressional Republicans over Benghazi escalated on Friday as the White House rebuffed House Speaker John Boehner's demand that it turn over unclassified internal emails linked to the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack.

Press secretary Jay Carney rejected the request and again accused Republicans of trying to milk the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans for political gain.

“They’re asking for emails that they’ve already seen, that they were able to review and take extensive notes on, apparently provide verbatim information to folks,” Carney told reporters.

His comments came hours after ABC News reported that talking points crafted by the administration to explain the attack to the public underwent extensive revisions at the State Department's request and with copious White House oversight.

"The fact that the very people who’ve reviewed this and probably leaked it—generally speaking, not specifically—are asking for something they’ve already had access to I think demonstrates that this is what it was from the beginning in terms of Republican handling of it, which is a highly political matter," the spokesman said.

Carney noted that key Republicans had been given access to internal emails in which officials discussed the drafting of the talking points. Lawmakers were able "to review them, take notes, spend as much with with them as they liked," Carney said. (The lawmakers were were not allowed to make copies or take the documents out, which is known as an "in camera" review. )

"There is a long precedent here for protecting internal deliberations. This is across administrations of both parties," he said. House Republicans have hinted they may try to subpoena the emails if the administration does not cooperate.

"From the hours after the attack, beginning with the Republican nominee’s unfortunate press release, and then his statements the day after, there has been an effort to politicize a tragedy here, the deaths of four Americans," Carney said, referring to Mitt Romney's poorly received response to the attack.

"The administration wouldn't allow our staff to keep any emails or make copies," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck told Yahoo News. "We believe the American public should be able to see the contents, and we continue to call on the president to live up to his promise of cooperation and release them publicly."

Meanwhile, senior administration officials, briefing reporters at the White House on condition that they not be named or quoted, offered a detailed timeline of the administration’s efforts to draft the talking points, which the House Intelligence Committee had requested. And they sought to explain away one email from a senior State Department official, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who seemed to urge an edit to spare the department from attacks by congressional Republicans.

Much of the latest controversy has centered on a handful of meaningful changes to the original CIA-produced draft, which ABC reported underwent 12 revisions:

- The very first draft, from 11:15 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, refers to “the attacks in Benghazi.” And it asserts “we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaida participated in the attack.” It suggests that the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia may be involved.

- By 4:42 p.m. on Friday, they are “demonstrations in Benghazi” that “evolved into a direct assault.” The al-Qaida reference is gone.

- A few edits later, at 8:59 p.m., "we do know" has become "there are indications that." And Ansar al-Sharia is gone.

As is well known, the ultimate version linked the onslaught in Benghazi to Muslim anger at an Internet video denigrating Islam—which had sparked a violent demonstration and attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo. There was no such demonstration in Benghazi.

Nuland's email in particular has drawn scrutiny. She objected to an early draft’s reference to CIA warnings in the months leading up to the attack on grounds that such language "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned …"

One senior administration official described Nuland’s concerns as consistent with worries expressed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which leads the ongoing investigation into the attack, and the Department of Justice. The official said Nuland also made the case that the administration should not suggest that Congress point to Ansar al-Sharia when administration officials were waiting to do so until the results of the investigation.

Another official said the FBI had objected to the "we do know that Islamic extremists" participated phrasing.

"I think the overriding concern of everyone involved in that circumstance is always to make sure that we’re not giving, to those who speak in public about these issues, information that cannot be confirmed, speculation about who was responsible, other things like warnings that may or may not be relevant to what we ultimately learn about what happened and why," Carney said at his public briefing later.

The officials also insisted that Carney had not meant to mislead reporters when he contended that the White House had only made one "stylistic" change—altering the description of the ransacked facility from a "consulate" to a "diplomatic post." They said he had been referring to the process that unfolded after the interagency debate on the talking points, once the deputy director of the CIA had drafted a would-be final draft on Saturday morning, Sept. 15. The documents obtained by ABC showed that the White House oversaw the early back-and-forth among the agencies concerned.

The officials also tackled another issue that has drawn scrutiny: Why, after lumping Benghazi in with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 as "acts of terror," did the president and other top aides shy from calling it "terrorism"? The officials said that there was never any doubt that the attack was terrorism, but that they avoided the label because they were not certain who carried out the attack or whether it was spontaneous or preplanned.