WASHINGTON (AFP) – Republican lawmakers compared Barack Obama’s inner circle to the secretive Nixon administration Thursday, denouncing the White House’s response to the 2012 attack on a US mission in Benghazi, Libya.
The Obama administration aggressively shot back, accusing congressional adversaries of seeking to “politicize a tragedy” and insisting it acted in good faith in providing documents to lawmakers.
The controversy re-surfaced after a conservative group on Wednesday published a White House email it had obtained via a legal challenge and which critics say shows an attempt to put a political spin on the deadly assault.
In the email, Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes tells Susan Rice — then the US envoy to the United Nations — to blame the attack on local anger in Benghazi over an anti-Muslim Internet video.
It has since become clear that the September 11, 2012 attack on the mission — which cost the lives of four Americans, including ambassador Chris Stevens — was planned by armed militants.
In the email, obtained by Judicial Watch and dated September 14, 2012, Rhodes laid out talking points and goals for Rice in her planned appearances on several US talk shows the next day.
She was asked “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, not a broader failure of policy.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday after the Rhodes email was first made public that it referred to protests in the Arab world as a whole, and not specifically to the Benghazi attack.
But the attack and Rice’s media appearances took place at the height of Obama’s successful re-election campaign, in which he made great play of having put Al-Qaeda on the back foot.
Republicans accuse the White House of trying to cover-up the organized nature of the attack, carried out by Libyan Islamist extremists with suspected Al-Qaeda ties or sympathies.
The administration, in part through Rice’s early public statements, said the attack was provoked by the video. But this version of events was quickly proven false.
Congress launched hearings and thousands of documents were turned over, but the Rhodes email had not been revealed, despite requests from the House of Representatives.
“It is disturbing and perhaps criminal that these documents, that documents like these were hidden by the Obama administration,” said Representative Darrell Issa, who chairs a House commission charged with overseeing and auditing the White House.
“The facts are coming out, that in fact this administration has knowingly withheld documents pursuant to congressional subpoenas in violation of any reasonable transparency or historical precedent, at least since Richard Milhous Nixon,” Issa added.
President Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974 after the Watergate scandal broke over illegal activities, and attempted cover-ups, by his administration.
After Issa’s hearing, Carney insisted that there has long been “an attempt by Republicans to politicize a tragedy. And that continues today.”
The State Department took a tough line, bristling at accusations by a retired general who testified that the military could have done more to counter the attack but wasn’t asked.
“The notion that we at the State Department didn’t do everything we could do to protect our people that night is just disgusting, quite frankly,” department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Harf also vigorously denied that the administration hid documents from Congress, saying Rhodes’s email had not specifically dealt with Benghazi talking points but was about general points to be given Rice, which also included subjects such as Iran and Israel.
And she said the email did “not change the narrative” of what had happened on the ground, insisting that despite nine hearings and 46 briefings by administration officials, “no new information has emerged, through all these months, that changes the facts that we know about what happened.”
House Speaker John Boehner meanwhile called on Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before Congress about the issue.