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Obama calls controversy over Benghazi talking points a 'sideshow'

May 13, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey

WASHINGTON — President Obama tried to dismiss a brewing controversy over the White House handling of the terrorist attack on Benghazi as a “sideshow” and accused critics of using an attack that killed four Americans for political gain.

“We dishonor them when we turn things like this into a political circus,” Obama said Monday at a brief news conference. “What happened was tragic. It was carried out by extremists inside of Libya. We are out there trying to hunt down the folks who carried this out, and we're trying to make sure that we fix the system so that it doesn't happen again.”

Obama’s remarks came as the White House tried to contain fallout from the disclosure of internal emails discussing what to tell the public in the days after the attack. The emails appear to show the White House was more closely involved in writing the talking points than aides previously acknowledged. White House spokesman Jay Carney has repeatedly said the White House made only stylistic changes to the talking points.

PHOTOS: The controversy over Benghazi

But one email disclosed Friday shows a State Department official seeking changes to at CIA-written draft out of concern that State Department would be blamed for missing early warnings of danger at the diplomatic outpost in Libya. A White House official appears to grant the request.

Obama argued Monday that his administration turned the emails over to congressional committees “several months ago” and lawmakers had not previously raised concerns.

“And suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there's something new to the story. There's no 'there' there,” Obama said.

In fact, Republicans have accused the White House of altering the talking points to protect the State Department since April, when a group of five committees in the Republican-led House issued a progress report on its investigation.

Republicans on the Hill have vowed to continue to investigate the administration’s handling of the attack. House oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista) on Monday asked the chairmen of the Accountability Review Board, an independent board that probed the Benghazi attack, to sit for interviews with committee investigators.

Issa says he’s concerned that former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Admiral Mike Mullen did not challenge the administration’s account of events, citing testimony from state department officials who say the review board let senior officials “off the hook.”

“The White House and the State Department have touted the ARB’s report as the definitive account of how and why the Benghazi attacks occurred,” Issa wrote, saying he intends to find out whether the criticism is “valid.”

President Obama argued Monday that the independent review delivered some “pretty hard judgments” of the U.S. protections of its diplomatic facilities abroad. The boards recommendations are being implemented, Obama said.

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kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

Twitter: @khennessey

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