POLITICS: White House

Obama can't put Benghazi in rear view

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Photo - WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 28:  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, leaves the U.S. Capitol after meeting with members of the U.S. Senate November 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. Rice has been meeting with members of Congress over the past two days to explain her position on remarks made regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 28: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, leaves the U.S. Capitol after meeting with members of the U.S. Senate November 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. Rice has been meeting with members of Congress over the past two days to explain her position on remarks made regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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For months, President Obama and his top surrogates portrayed Republican attacks on their handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Libya as a political witch-hunt, a GOP obsession with little basis in fact.

But newly released emails show that the White House struck any reference to terrorism from it's public description of the fatal attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three others, and the issue has begun to move beyond the narrow concern of political opponents.

And some said the White House response to the situation, when it first portrayed the attacks not as a coordinated terrorist strike but as a spontaneous act of violence by protesters, is only hurting its cause.

"The way in which the talking points were altered raises questions," Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and adviser to six secretaries of state, said. "At minimum, it's embarrassing. More than that, it strikes me as cheap politicization. This was willful spin in an effort to create a different storyline."

Now, the White House is under a blitz of media questioning about emails that show administration officials immediately after the attack focused on erasing any mention of terrorism from the talking points provided by the CIA and FBI. The White House earlier portrayed the changes to that CIA and FBI information as merely "stylistic."

For months, the administration accused Republicans of politicizing the issue with its claims that the White House and State Department had provided inadequate security at American diplomatic missions and then misled the public.

But the emails clearly show that officials with close ties to the White House had made changes to its description of the event with a political calculation to lessen blowback for a terrorist attack just two months before Obama's re-election.

In the emails, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland voices concerns about lawmakers wanting "to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings."

"Why would we want to feed that?" she asks

But even after such revelations, the White House dug in with its denials that it had done anything to mislead the public after the attacks.

"The oldest rule of scandals is you get all the information out as quickly as possible -- you don't want to let a drip, drip, drip occur," Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia said. "The White House is violating that principle. And it's just making things worse for them."

Still, Carney insisted the editing was stylistic, changing the word "consulate" to "diplomatic facility.

Republicans are now calling for the White House to make all Benghazi-related emails public, suggesting the administration has something to hide. The White House has not agreed to release those documents

The remaining question is how politically damaging the episode has been for the White House.

Republicans have long equated White House actions to a cover-up that goes to the top levels of government, only to have the public respond with a yawn over what is seen as routine political sniping.

"The reality is this story likely falls somewhere between the two narratives," Miller said, "between the Republican charge that this is gross negligence or a willful cover-up and the Democratic assertion that nothing here was amiss."

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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