A newly released email has again put President Obama and his senior aides on the defensive for their response to the 2012 attack that killed four Americans at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, wrote the email to help prepare Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for a round of interviews on Sunday TV talk shows to discuss the Benghazi attack and a wave of anti-American protests around the globe that week.
He urged Rice “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”
Republicans and administration critics long have accused the White House and Rice, now the president’s national security advisor, of falsely blaming the Benghazi attack on an anti-Islamic video to shield the president’s image in an election year.
Several Republicans described the latest email as a “smoking gun” that showed the White House sought to cover up a lethal terrorist attack for partisan gain.
The crude video, made in the U.S., sparked protests and riots in more than 35 cities in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. But the CIA and other investigations concluded that Libyan extremist groups organized and carried out the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher J. Stevens.
Rhodes’ email was dated Sept. 14, 2012, three days after the Benghazi attack. It was obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department. The White House has previously released email correspondence detailing how “talking points” vetted by the CIA had shaped Rice’s comments.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the email was not previously released because it did not deal specifically with Benghazi, but with the broader unrest. He said Rice’s comments on the TV shows were based on the intelligence available at the time, not on political considerations.
“It was based on currently available information,” Carney said. “And as you can imagine, in those days after an attack, in a regional city in a far-away country, that information was not complete, which is what we said repeatedly.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Thursday that Carney’s assertion that the email was not about Benghazi was a “total departure from reality.”
McCain also challenged Carney’s statement that the guidance given to Rice was based on the best available intelligence.
Rhodes “had no information that there was a spontaneous demonstration sparked by a video. That was manufactured somewhere,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “The American people need to know where that came from.... We need to know who gave her those talking points because they are patently false.”
Rhodes’ email to Rice was circulated to a large group of White House aides, including Carney. It included talking points on how the Obama administration was handling the violence and tried to anticipate reporters’ questions.
One of those questions was whether there was truth to a report that the Obama administration had received and ignored intelligence about a possible attack.
“That story is absolutely wrong,” Rhodes wrote. “We are not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent. We also see indications that this action was related to the video that has sparked protests in other countries.”
In her appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Sunday, Rice described the Benghazi attack as “initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo … prompted by the video.”