US President Barack Obama’s White House fought and lost a battle to avoid making public what it claimed were confidential records of internal deliberations over the attack on a US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya in September last year.
Obama administration officials portray their unsuccessful effort to avoid disclosing the records as the end result of a process of “accommodation” which the government’s executive branch routinely uses to respond to frequent requests and subpoenas by Congress for sensitive materials.
However, some politicians and legal experts say the administration’s decision to not release the records sooner may have backfired, prolonging the controversy and deepening the determination of critics in Congress to keep the story alive.
“I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who accused the administration of trying to “stonewall Congress at every turn.”
The administration at first refused to show copies of the Benghazi records, including e-mails and drafts of what proved to be inaccurate public “talking points” about the attack, to anyone outside the executive branch.
In the face of escalating congressional demands for the materials, the administration then offered closed-door briefings on these, officials said.
Subsequently, facing a squeeze in the Senate over the confirmation of Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as CIA director, the White House allowed congressional intelligence committees to read the records in secret rooms, but not to take copies, the officials said.
As recently as last week, administration lawyers still maintained the White House had a rock-solid case that the Benghazi material could be withheld from Congress, even if subpoenaed, executive branch and congressional officials said.
The White House argued, as have past administrations, that it did not have to hand over materials that were part of a “deliberative process,” these officials said.
The very next day, the White House released the records in response to leaks about their contents that the administration characterized as inaccurate.
“Despite the fact that e-mails relating to the Benghazi talking points were made available to members of Congress several months ago, in recent days these e-mails have been selectively and inaccurately read out to the media. To make clear what is and is not in these e-mails ... the White House took the extraordinary step of releasing [them],” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.
Republican Representative Peter King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the administration’s decision, after fighting for months to keep the documents secret, had “definitely weakened their credibility doing forward.”
Nothing in the materials made public “was of national security concern” and the White House’s withholding of the documents was “clearly a political attempt by them,” he said.