By The Hill staff - 05/01/14 06:20 PM EDT
Republicans are turning up the heat on the White House over the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, questioning whether the administration violated a congressional subpoena by withholding documents.
GOP lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol have assailed the administration over emails obtained by Judicial Watch under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
One of the emails details national security adviser Ben Rhodes’s “goals” for the talk-show appearances of Susan Rice the weekend after the deadly assault in Libya. In the email, Rhodes said Rice should “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”
Rice argued in series of Sunday show appearances that the violence in Benghazi appeared to have happened spontaneously following protests over an anti-Islam YouTube video. The administration later conceded that the Benghazi attack, which left four Americans dead, was preplanned.
While talking points prepared by the CIA had suggested a link between protests and the violence in Libya, the email from Rhodes appears to be the first explicit mention of an anti-Islam video in the documents used to prepare Rice.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the Rhodes email a “smoking gun” that proves the White House tried to spin the facts ahead of the presidential election. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the memo showed Obama officials had misled the public to downplay al Qaeda’s resurgence.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) demanded Thursday that Secretary of State John Kerry testify before the House about the email and why it wasn’t provided to House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
"If the White House won’t explain it, Secretary Kerry should come to the Capitol to explain why he defied an official congressional subpoena," Boehner said in a statement. "And the White House needs to understand that this investigation will not end until the entire truth is revealed and justice and accountability are served.”
The Speaker said the withholding of the email constituted the "most flagrant example yet of the administration's contempt for the American people’s right to know the truth about what happened when four Americans died in a fiery terrorist attack."
The White House has pushed back hard, arguing the email from Rhodes wasn’t provided to Issa because it wasn’t intended to prep Rice about the violence in Benghazi.
"It was explicitly not about Benghazi," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "It was about the overall situation in the region, the Muslim world, where you saw protests outside of embassy facilities across the region, including in Cairo, Sanaa, Khartoum and Tunis. And the so-called talking points around Benghazi, as you know because it's been substantially reported on, were prepared by the CIA."
The White House last May released a trove of emails detailing the inter-agency process that was used to draft the “talking points” that were given to Rice, who was then serving as ambassador to the United Nations.
The messages — circulated Sept. 14-15 — showed that CIA officials had asked that references to al Qaeda and another terrorist group be removed, with officials at the State Department also repeatedly expressing concern over various revisions.
While those documents showed the White House deferring to State and the CIA on the talking points, Republicans say the Rhodes email is evidence that the White House was concerned about the political fallout and was responsible for Rice linking the violence to the YouTube video.
Facing a barrage of questions about the email on Thursday, Carney responded by accusing the media and the Republican Party of spinning conspiracy theories. He said Republicans were trying to “politicize a tragedy” by claiming a conspiracy “when they haven't been able to find one."
He argued that the comments made by Rice and other officials were “based on what we believed to be true at the time.”
“They were caveating all the time about the fact that more information might become available; more details might become available,” Carney said.
Still, the White House’s protests have done little to convince Republicans that the administration didn’t make the link to the anti-Islam video to protect the president’s reelection campaign.
“They did not want you to know about this email,” Graham said Thursday on the Senate floor.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reiterated his call for a select committee to investigate Benghazi, a step that House Republican leaders have resisted despite increasing pressure from rank-and-file members.
“The time has now come for a select committee because these talking points raise more questions than are answered,” McCain said. “This is a cover up of a situation that was politically motivated ... and the American people deserve to know the truth.
The calls for an investigation were heightened by the testimony of a U.S. general who on Thursday said military personnel realized early on that the attack in Benghazi was deliberate and planned.
"What we did know early on was that this was a hostile action," Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "This was no demonstration gone terribly awry."
Lovell served as deputy director for intelligence for U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Germany at the time of the attack.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked Lovell how soon he and other U.S. officials knew an al Qaeda-affiliated group had struck the compound.
“Very, very soon. When we were still in the early hours of this activity,” Lovell said.
“Was it a video that sparked a protest?” Chaffetz asked.
“No sir,” Lovell said.
Democrats dismissed the GOP’s renewed focus on Benghazi, portraying it as a sideshow intended to stir up the conservative base and distract voters from their lack of ideas on improving the economy.
"Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. Why aren't we talking about something else?” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
“Whatever was in that – what I know of what I've read in the press … [was] that those e-mails were very consistent with what was put out there before. I don't think there's anything knew there."
Pressed on the appropriateness of the White House releasing the emails under FOIA after refusing to do so under congressional subpoena, Pelosi said the document was not covered by the request.
"The scope of the subpoena that, whatever his name is – Issa – was putting forth did not include that email. So a FOIA is a different story. … And it isn't that different from what else was out there."