WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday dismissed Republican criticism of his administration’s handling of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya, calling the criticism a political sideshow.
Obama was asked at a news conference Monday about recent disclosures that talking points on the attack produced by the intelligence community were later watered down to delete references to suspected ties between last September’s assault and Islamic militants.
His comments came after Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sought answers from the leaders of an independent investigation that absolved Hillary Rodham Clinton of wrongdoing in the much-criticized response to the attacks in Benghazi that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Obama, who spoke at the news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, said it was not clear in the aftermath of the attack who was responsible and what their motives were. He again defended his administration’s actions.
Republicans have questioned why the U.S. military couldn’t move faster to stop the two nighttime attacks that occurred over several hours in September. They have accused the Obama administration of downplaying the attacks during the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Democrats say Republicans are trying to exploit the deaths of four Americans to undercut Obama and Clinton, who was then secretary of state and is now an early favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Issa planned on Monday to seek depositions from retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who was appointed by George W. Bush as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military.
Issa, who is leading the Republicans’ investigations into the attacks, said he wants to know with whom the pair spoke to reach their conclusion that Clinton did not direct the response to the attacks. The scathing report did blast the State Department for a lack of security in Benghazi.
But the top Democrat on the panel said Monday that Pickering and Mullen should answer questions about their work at a congressional hearing, not in a private deposition.
“If our committee is truly interested in improving the security of American diplomatic personnel overseas, members of our committee and the American public should hear first-hand from the individuals who have done the most exhaustive review of these attacks,” Rep. Elijah Cummings wrote in a letter to Issa.
Pickering, who has served in Republican as well as Democratic administrations over a career that spanned four decades, has stood by his panel’s conclusion that decisions about the consulate’s security were made well below the secretary’s level. He defended his assessment that absolved Clinton on several political talk shows Sunday.
“We knew where the responsibility rested,” said Pickering.
“They’ve tried to point a finger at people more senior than where we found the decisions were made,” Pickering said of Clinton’s critics.
Pickering said he wants to answer questions at congressional hearings. He said he could have answered many of the questions lawmakers raised last week, such as whether U.S. military forces could have saved Americans had they dispatched F-16 jet fighters to the consulate, some 1,600 miles (2,570 kilometers) away from the nearest likely launching point.
“Mike Mullen, who was part of this report and indeed worked very closely with all of us and shared many of the responsibilities directly with me, made it very clear that his view as a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that there were nothing within range that could have made a difference,” Pickering said.
Robert Gates, a former Defense secretary appointed by Bush and retained by Obama, defended the decisions made at the time, saying: “I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were,” adding “getting somebody there in a timely way — would have been very difficult, if not impossible.”
The Accountability Review Board, which Pickering headed with Mullen, did not question Clinton at length about the attacks but concluded last December that the decisions about the consulate were made well below the secretary’s level.
“I was surprised today that they did not probe Secretary Clinton in detail,” Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte said of the review board.
In her last formal testimony as secretary of state, Clinton appeared before two congressional committees investigating the Benghazi attacks. She took responsibility for the department’s missteps and failures leading up to the assault, but said that requests for more security at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi didn’t reach her desk.
Pickering and Mullen’s blistering report found that “systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” of the State Department meant that security was “inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
The Obama administration has tried to move past the controversy, but a steady drip of new information has fueled Republican claims that the government initially misled Americans about the assault’s nature. Republicans have called for a special select congressional committee to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week heard a riveting minute-by-minute account from a former top diplomat in Libya about the two nighttime attacks. Gregory Hicks, a former deputy chief of mission to Libya, detailed his phone conversations from Tripoli with Stevens.
The hearing produced no major revelation but renewed interest in the attacks that happened during the lead-up to Obama’s re-election in November.
Republicans are insisting on exploring what political calculations went into rewriting talking points that the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, used on news shows the Sunday after the attack.