WASHINGTON — A frustrated President Obama said Monday that the Republican focus on the administration’s response to last year’s fatal attacks in Benghazi, Libya, is a ‘‘sideshow’’ with obvious partisan motives.
‘‘There’s no ‘there’ there,’’ Obama said in response to the ongoing criticism of the administration’s initial public response to the assault.
Last week, edited versions surfaced of the administration’s talking points for congressional leaders and other officials shortly after the attacks, which killed four Americans. The versions showed the State Department and CIA battling over who would explain the events to the public. Republicans assert that the differing versions constituted a coverup.
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 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 Christopher Stevens, communications officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, a native of Winchester, Mass., died when militants overran two US compounds in the restive Libyan city on Sept. 11.
Obama’s public frustration over an issue that has unified congressional Republicans and animates their conservative base came as one of the Republicans leading the charge asked the overseers of a State Department investigation to answer more questions.
Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked former diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to submit to new questioning about the scope of the Accountability Review Board they led in the fall. The request Monday was not a full congressional subpoena.
Obama noted that the e-mails on the talking points had been provided to Congress months ago. Republicans say the e-mail chain shows that the administration sought to avoid pinning the assault on Al Qaeda-linked militants because a successful terrorist attack could have damaged Obama’s reelection chances.
The administration did not squarely call the assault terrorism in public for several days, but Obama said US officials presented that conclusion so soon that it ‘‘defies logic’’ to accuse the White House of a conspiracy. ‘‘The fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations,’’ Obama said. ‘‘They’ve used it for fund-raising.’’
Three Republican senators promptly accused Obama of dodging the issue and called for a joint congressional committee to investigate further. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said the president referred only generically to terrorism the day after the attacks and wouldn’t go further.
‘‘The administration is spinning the American people and stonewalling Congress,’’ the senators said in a joint statement.
Republicans contend Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, misled the public when she suggested five days after the attacks that they were linked to spontaneous protests over an anti-Muslim video. Democrats counter that although her talking points were heavily edited, Rice still referred to Al Qaeda and extremists as potential culprits when she appeared on the Sunday TV news shows.
On Monday, Obama said ‘‘nobody understood exactly what was taking place during the course of those first few days.’’
The e-mails detailing the interagency discussion on how to best describe the events were shared with Congress as a condition for allowing the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director to advance.Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.