E-mails released for the first time Tuesday show that White House officials wanted to publicly blame an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, on a protest that never happened. Republicans called the revelation "the smoking gun" showing the Obama administration played with the facts for political purposes.
The e-mails, obtained by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request, include one in which White House official Ben Rhodes lists "goals" for then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice to meet in explaining the attack and protests occurring across the Middle East that week to the American public.
The e-mail, sent to various officials including White House spokesman Jay Carney, say one goal was "to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
Another goal was "to reinforce the president and administration's strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges."
During appearances on five Sunday news programs, Rice did blame the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, on a protest against an anti-Islam video produced by an American. So did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and President Obama would not say whether it was a terrorist attack until several days later.
The CIA station chief in Libya reported from the beginning that the attack was an al-Qaeda-linked operation and that there was no protest. Former CIA deputy director Mike Morell testified last month that he had no idea where the story about a video protest came from.
Republicans claim the story emanated from the White House to protect the president from charges that he was wrong to claim during his campaign in 2012 that al-Qaeda was on its heels.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the e-mails "a smoking gun" that points to White House efforts "to shape the story" of what happened in Benghazi.
Rather than have Rice provide "the best information that was available" in her TV appearances, the administration's goal was "to put a political stance on a disaster six weeks before an election," Graham said.
The White House said it relied on the best intelligence available at the time, and when better intelligence arrived, the story was clarified.
Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said Rhodes' email contains general talking points on unrest spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa at the time.
Meehan noted that Rhodes' email also made clear that "our primary goals" included the safety of U.S. personnel in the field and bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice.
"There were protests taking place across the region in reaction to an offensive internet video, so that's what these points addressed," Meehan said in an email. Known protests in Cairo, Sanaa, Khartoum, and Tunis and early reports of similar protests in Benghazi "contributed to questions of how the attack began," she said.
The e-mails also show that then-deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough, on Rhodes' behalf, assigned Clinton-aide Jake Sullivan to work with Morell to finalize the initial talking points on Benghazi. At that time, the talking points did not include the story about the protest.