(USA Today) Republicans say e-mails released Tuesday on the attack in Benghazi, Libya, include "the smoking gun" that shows a White House official urged that the assault on the U.S. consulate be blamed on a protest that never happened.
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.
Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the assault, which the White House subsequently acknowledged was an al-Qaeda-linked terror attack.
The e-mail, sent to various officials including White House spokesman Jay Carney, said 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."
Rhodes is assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and speechwriting.
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. Though there was some dispute over the manner of the attack, former CIA deputy director Mike Morell testified earlier this month that he had no idea where the story about a video protest came from when he saw Rice make the claim on television.
Republicans say the protest story emanated from a White House bent on protecting 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' e-mail contains general talking points on unrest spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa at the time.
"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 e-mail.
Protests in Cairo; Sanaa, Yemen; Khartoum, Sudan; and Tunis, Tunisia, 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 video protests.