Oren Dorell, USA TODAY 9:26 a.m. EDT May 8, 2014
The Obama administration continues to withhold documents that could shed light on how U.S. officials produced its false narrative that the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi arose from a non-existent protest over a video, according to a conservative watchdog group.
The documents reveal "that the Obama administration is still refusing to provide the full details of how top officials arrived at the now-discredited talking points released to the public following the deadly assault on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya," Judicial Watch said in a statement.
"Though the State Department document repeatedly describes the material as 'Unclassified' or 'Sensitive But Unclassified,' it nonetheless justifies scores of extensive redactions and exemptions," the statement said.
The claim comes as the House prepares to vote Thursday on a resolution to create a select committee that will investigate the Sept. 11, 2012, attack.
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said the committee will be a "circus."
"It can go on forever," Becerra said Wednesday. "The amount of money they can spend is undefined and can be unlimited."
House Speaker John Boehner vowed that the examination would be "all about getting to the truth" of the Obama administration's response to the attack and not be a partisan assault on the administration.
"This is a serious investigation," he said Wednesday.
The committee will be chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who said in an opinion column in USA TODAY there are many questions that need to be answered. Among them: Why was security at the consulate inadequate, why were repeated calls for additional security rejected, and was the U.S. military response sufficient?
"Facts are neither Republican nor Democrat," he said. "While our fellow citizens are free to draw varying conclusions and inferences from the facts, surely there can be consensus that every relevant fact must be uncovered."
Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, say the White House claimed the attack arose from a protest against an anti-Islam video to protect the president's 2012 campaign message that al-Qaeda was in retreat. White House spokesman Jay Carney says the claim was drawn from intelligence.
The documents identified by Judicial Watch as being needed to get to the truth are described in a letter from the Justice Department explaining its rationale for not releasing the documents. The letter was obtained in the course of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act.
Justice trial attorney Robert Prince, who wrote the letter, describes the documents as "pre-decisional and deliberative in nature," and says releasing such information could "chill the frank deliberations" between government officials when formulating responses to sensitive issues.
Judicial Watch is the same organization that released a batch of e-mails last week that showed Obama aide Ben Rhodes instructing then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice to focus on the role of the video in her television appearances to discuss the Benghazi attack and unrest across the Muslim world five days after the attack.
Alec Gerlach, a State Department spokesman, denied that documents are being withheld in an inappropriate fashion.
"The premise that anything is being withheld misrepresents what we've done and what we've said," Gerlach said. "Additional documents are being processed for response to congressional inquiries."
Administration officials have said they have shared thousands of documents with congressional investigators and participated in hundreds of hours of depositions and interviews about Benghazi. More documents are still being released "on a rolling basis," spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Friday.
Prince's letter includes a 17-page Vaughn Index, which federal agencies use to justify their reasons for withholding material from public disclosure.
Prince's letter describes the 35 pages of documents as various drafts and responses that constitute "internal strategy discussions relating to the drafting of an official response letter" from Rice to various congressional inquiries regarding the Benghazi attack. Prince says the documents are protected from release under Exemption 5 of the Freedom of Information Act.
That exemption covers "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency," according to a general DOJ description of FOIA exemptions. Records covered by Exemption 5 "are good candidates for discretionary release" and facts generally not protected, the DOJ description says.
The withheld documents include:
• A seven-page e-mail exchange consisting of 16 messages between State and other administration officials [Rhodes, Brennan, McDonough . . .] on Sept. 27 and Sept. 28, 2012, with an original subject line "FOX News: US officials knew Libya attack was terrorism within 24 hours, sources confirm."
• Originally designated "sensitive but unclassified," the document was withheld to protect the formulation of a media strategy with respect to an ongoing sensitive matter under a FOIA exemption that protects the deliberative process, Prince wrote.
• A one-page e-mail exchange, consisting of three messages, dated Sept. 11, 2012, with the subject line "UPDATE: Clashes at U.S. consulate in eastern Libyan city (Reuters)."
• A three-page e-mail exchange between State and other U.S. officials, dated Sept. 28, 2012 and originally designated "unclassified." The subject line of the first five messages is "Statement by the Director of Public Affairs for National Intelligence Shawn Turner on the intelligence related to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya."