President Obama dismissed the controversy over his administration's… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — A defiant President Obama dismissed as a "sideshow" the controversy over his administration's handling of last year's armed assault in Benghazi, Libya, accusing critics of trying to make political hay from the deaths of four Americans.
"We dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus," Obama told reporters Monday.
Obama's angry remarks were his first since House hearings last week about the September 2012 attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi, and his first public reaction to fresh evidence indicating the White House weighed political calculations as it released information in the days that followed.
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The evidence — a newly released email chain — has reprised the debate that erupted in the heat of last fall's presidential race, although Democrats say this time Republicans have a new target. Having failed to sink Obama's reelection bid, they argue, the new investigation is aimed at tanking the next possible Democratic nominee — former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"Suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there's something new to the story. There's no 'there' there," Obama said at a brief news conference following an Oval Office meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Republicans have denied targeting Clinton and say they are pursuing complaints from whistle-blowers who claim an independent review board charged with investigating the attack inappropriately spared top State Department officials, including Clinton, from scrutiny.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on Monday formally asked the two chairmen of the Accountability Review Board to sit for interviews with committee investigators. Issa said he wanted to determine whether former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Michael G. Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, challenged the administration's account of events.
Pickering said Monday he would welcome the opportunity to testify, although he noted that the review board was charged with investigating issues of security and safety at diplomatic posts — not the Obama administration's public response or the so-called talking points discussed in the emails.
The two matters are "not even connectable, as far as I can see," he said.
Pickering defended his decision not to interview Clinton, saying he and others had discussions with the secretary and felt comfortable that a formal interview would not have added information.
"We knew enough about where decisions were made and by whom they were reviewed to know and understand that she was not part of that decision-making process," Pickering said. "And we understood enough about the other parts of the process that she participated in … through people who were with her at meetings, that we didn't think we needed to ask her to go back and rehearse all of that."
The emails disclosed last week showed the White House was not forthcoming about its role in drafting the guidance, known as talking points, intended for administration officials and lawmakers after the Benghazi attack. White House spokesman Jay Carney has repeatedly said the White House made only stylistic changes to the talking points.
But an email disclosed Friday shows a State Department official sought changes to CIA-drafted talking points out of concern that the State Department would be blamed for missing early warnings of possible terrorist action. A White House official appeared to grant the request.
Obama argued in the news briefing Monday that his administration turned the emails over to congressional committees "several months ago" and that lawmakers "concluded that in fact there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used."
But a report written by five Republican-led House committees and released in April concluded that the White House altered the talking points to protect the State Department and removed suggestions that Islamic extremists were probably involved. At the time, Democrats on committees complained that the process of drafting the report was flawed and partisan.
The Benghazi debate has emerged as something of a partisan litmus test.
A Pew Research Center poll released Monday showed 70% of self-identified Republicans said the Obama administration has been "dishonest" in its handling of the killings, while 16% of Democrats had that view.
Similarly, 60% of Democrats said they thought Republicans had "gone too far" in investigations into Benghazi, compared with 15% who said Republicans had acted appropriately. Republicans, 65% to 8%, took the opposite view. Independents were more evenly split on both questions.
David Lauter in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.