Obama: Controversy over talking points after Benghazi attack a distraction

At a news conference Monday, President Obama dismissed his conservative opponents’ continuing criticism of his administration’s actions before and after the deadly attack in Benghazi last year, Anne Gearan reports:

Obama scoffed at the idea the administration was hiding anything and said continuing to politicize Benghazi is disrespectful to the Americans who died there. “We dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus,” Obama said during a morning White House news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“The whole issue of talking points, throughout this process, frankly, has been a sideshow” that distracts from an examination of the serious shortcomings in diplomatic security revealed by the assault and by harsh assessments based on an investigation afterward, Obama said.

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, communications officer Sean Smith and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty died when militants overran two U.S. compounds in the restive Libyan city on Sept. 11. (Read the full article here.)

Glenn Kessler notes that while Obama used the phrase “act of terror” in connection with the attack, he did not directly refer to it as “terrorism,” as he said he did at Monday’s news conference:

The president’s claim that he said “act of terrorism” is taking revisionist history too far, given that he repeatedly refused to commit to that phrase when asked directly by reporters in the weeks after the attack. He appears to have gone out of his way to avoid saying it was a terrorist attack, so he has little standing to make that claim now.

Indeed, the initial unedited talking points did not call it an act of terrorism. Instead of pretending the right words were uttered, it would be far better to acknowledge that he was echoing what the intelligence community believed at the time — and that the administration’s phrasing could have been clearer and more forthright from the start. (Read the rest of the discussion here.)

Opinion writer Dana Milbank writes that the administration’s response to conservative accusations has been unprofessional:

The Benghazi inquiry ceased long ago to be about its original and worthy purpose — whether the administration could have done something to prevent the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans stationed there — and became about whether the administration tried to play down terrorists’ involvement in the killings. The entire fight, about the altering of talking points U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used on Sunday TV shows soon after the attack, is rather banal, because the full story was fast emerging anyway. As Obama correctly pointed out Monday, “Who executes some sort of coverup or effort to tamp things down for three days?”

But Obama and his aides gave license to the conspiracy theorists when they claimed months ago that they made only one minor change to the CIA-drafted talking points. They didn’t say anything publicly in March when they provided congressional investigators with e-mails showing that White House officials had been involved in an intense fight between the CIA and the State Department over the drafting of the points and that at least a dozen versions had been written. (Read the rest of the column here.)

Opinion writer Richard Cohen argues that it is time to move beyond the Benghazi affair:

It is good to find out how this happened — who’s responsible for the inadequate security, etc. — and it is also good to hold the Obama administration accountable for putting out a misleading statement. But the record will show that a thorough report was, in fact, compiled. Its authors were Thomas Pickering, an esteemed retired diplomat, and Adm. Mike Mullen, an equally esteemed retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They found the standard mistakes and snafus — but no crime.

Watergate, though, was a crime. Iran-contra was a crime. Government officials were convicted and some of them went to jail. Fudging a press release is not a crime. Compromising on wording is not a crime. Making a decision — even if wrong — that there was no time to call in the cavalry is not a crime. And having inadequate security is not only not a crime but partly a consequence of congressional budget cuts.

It is not a crime either to make a mountain out of a molehill, but this particular one is constructed of a fetid combination of bad taste and poisonous politics. (Read the rest of his column here.)

By perpetuating the controversy, Republicans risk distracting themselves from the party’s urgent tasks, argues opinion writer Greg Sargent:

All the scandal-fueled excitement is about to run headlong into the reality of immigration reform. The Senate is likely to pass a reform compromise widely loathed by the right, and House Republicans will have to figure out a way to get the base to accept it — or to pass it with mostly Democratic support, which would badly damage John Boehner. Failure means the GOP gets saddled with the blame for killing reform — dealing a severe blow to hopes of repairing relations with Latinos, even as demographic reality marches on.

Max Ehrenfreund writes for Wonkblog and compiles Wonkbook, a daily policy newsletter. You can subscribe here. Before joining The Washington Post, Ehrenfreund wrote for the Washington Monthly and The Sacramento Bee.

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