WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday tried to turn the tables on Republicans who have criticized his administration’s response to last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, calling on lawmakers to approve his request to increase funding for diplomatic security.
Obama’s call was the second step in as many days designed to combat GOP charges that his administration misled Americas about the circumstances of the attack, playing down the terrorist strike that killed four Americans amid the presidential race. Obama has angrily rejected those claims and now is seeking to turn the debate toward improving embassy security.
“I want to say to members of Congress in both parties, we need to come together and truly honor the sacrifice of those four courageous Americans and better secure our diplomatic posts around the world,” Obama said at a Rose Garden news conference with the Turkish prime minister. “That’s how we learn the lessons of Benghazi.”
The State Department is seeking about $1.4 billion for increased security. The money would come primarily from funds that haven’t been spent in Iraq. That would include $553 million for 35 more Marine Security Guard units, $130 million for 155 diplomatic security agents and $376 million for security upgrades and construction at new embassies.
Since the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, Democrats have complained that Republicans cut $300 million from the Obama administration’s budget request of $2.6 billion for diplomatic and embassy security in 2012.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Congress provided extra security funding in legislation passed this spring. “It is better management that is required now to address these security concerns,” the spokesman, Brendan Buck, said.
Obama also said his administration is increasing intelligence and warning capabilities to secure diplomats and that he’s directed the Pentagon to ensure that the military “can respond lightening quick in times of crisis.”
“But we’re not going to be able to do this alone. We’re going to need Congress as a partner,” Obama said.
His comments came the day after the White House released 99 pages of emails and a single page of hand-written edits showing the interagency debate over the talking points under pressure from Congress. The emails show that White House staff only requested minor edits, but there were repeated requests from the State Department to take out information that could be used to criticize them.
Democrats rallied behind Obama, arguing that the email disclosure undermined Republican claims of a cover-up.
“Let’s be honest about what’s happening here,” Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Thursday in a speech on the Senate floor. “It’s not about doing all we can to find the truth and making sure it never happens again; it’s about political-gamesmanship and finding someone to blame.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the emails “prove there simply was no cover-up.”
“Yet Republicans, with full knowledge of these emails, claimed the White House was hiding the truth,” Reid said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., agreed with Obama that the GOP focus was a “sideshow.”
Yet Republicans made clear they have no plans to back down, with Boehner telling reporters that the GOP members on five committees were “working overtime” on the Benghazi issue.
Eight months after the attack, the issue remains a political winner with the Republican base as conservatives have been ferocious in assailing Obama. Rank-and-file GOP members and outside groups have pressured Boehner to appoint a special select committee to investigate. Instead, Republicans are pursuing their own inquiries and promising to call more witnesses to testify publicly, including the veteran diplomat and retired admiral, Thomas Pickering, who led an independent review of the attack that widely criticized the State Department’s insufficient security at the facility.
Pickering and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen sent a letter Thursday to the House oversight committee chairman saying they will testify in public but not submit to private interviews with staff investigators prior to their testimony.
“The public deserves to hear your questions and answers,” Pickering and Mullen told Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. They offered to appear before the panel either May 28 or June 3.
The emails disclosed on Wednesday underscored the turf battle between the State Department and CIA, as neither wanted to take the blame for the attack. They also showed the reluctance within the administration about saying anything definitively as officials scrambled to write talking points for lawmakers and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who discussed the attack on Sunday talk shows.
Rice’s widely debunked remarks that cited protests over an anti-Islam video as the cause of the attack fueled the criticism of the administration and later cost her a chance at becoming secretary of state.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on a condition of anonymity without authorization to discuss the matter on the record, said CIA deputy director Mike Morell edited the talking points after a meeting at the White House on Saturday, Sept. 15. The White House document release showed Morell’s hand-written notes, scratching out from the CIA’s early drafts mentions of al-Qaida, the experience of fighters in Libya, Islamic extremists and a warning to the Cairo embassy on the eve of the attacks of calls for a demonstration and break-in by jihadists.
The emails show that Morell’s boss, then-CIA Director David Petraeus, apparently was displeased by the removal of so much of the material his analysts had proposed for release. “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then,” Petraeus wrote after receiving Morell’s edited version.