Obama dismisses criticism of Benghazi talking points as ‘side show’

At a press conference on Monday, President Obama addressed the Benghazi talking points criticism, and said, “We don’t have time to be playing these kinds of political games here in Washington.” (The Washington Post)

A frustrated President Obama on Monday dismissed new questions surrounding the White House role in producing a set of public talking points after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, calling the debate around them a politically motivated “side show.”

“We don’t have time to keep playing these political games in Washington,” Obama said, arguing that the more important work is ensuring that U.S. diplomats are adequately protected. “We dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus.”

Obama spoke at a morning news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is visiting the White House to discuss next month’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the international response to Syria’s civil war, and the global economy.

But Obama faced questions focusing on two issues consuming political Washington— revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative political groups for special scrutiny during the groups’ application process for tax-exempt status and the White House role in shaping the public message in the days following the Benghazi attacks.

Last week, edited versions surfaced of the administration’s talking points for Congressional leaders and U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice within a week of the attack, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

The various versions revealed a contest between the State Department and the CIA — whose outposts in Benghazi were attacked— over which would have more influence in telling the initial public accounts of what transpired on the ground.

But the talking points — provided months ago to Congressional leaders — also revealed a larger White House role in their creation than previously acknowledged.

While White House officials edited only a few words in the final draft, as had been previously acknowledged, senior White House officials had a larger say in producing the first set of talking points, which emerged from discussions with State, FBI, Defense Department and CIA officials.

Those discussions were eventually assembled by CIA Deputy Director Michael J. Morrell into the first version of the talking points, which after a dozen edits were delivered by Rice on a series of Sunday morning talk show five days after the attacks.

The final version did not include earlier references to a specific terrorist group involved in the attacks, an omission Congressional Republicans have pointed to as evidence that Obama sought to downplay the link during a then-close presidential race.

“The whole issue of talking points throughout this process has been a side show,” Obama said Monday. “Suddenly three days ago this gets spun up as if there is something new to the story. There’s no there there.”

Obama continued, “The whole thing defies logic, and the fact that this keeps getting churned out frankly has a lot to do with political motivations.”

Obama spoke as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee announced that it was expanding its investigation of the assault on the American mission in Benghazi, and will interview the two men who led the State Department review of the U.S. response to attack.

The committee said it is asking former ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, who co-chaired the State Department Benghazi Accountability Review Board, to submit to formal, transcribed interviews with committee investigators in anticipation of a public hearing on the investigation.

Obama and Cameron also were asked about Syria, and whether a new agreement from Russian President Vladimir Putin to help bring about talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the opposition holds any promise of success.

Cameron called Putin’s decision, which revives a year-old negotiating plan, a “major diplomatic initiative.”

But Russia has proven to be an obstacle to such talks before, resisting in particular U.S. demands that Assad not be a part of any transitional government. More than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, now in its third year.

Asked how he intended to pressure Russia to maintain its support for the effort, Cameron said he would appeal to Putin’s interest in having a stable Middle East.

“The current trajectory is in no one’s self-interest,” Cameron said.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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