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White House on defense over new Benghazi emails, claims controversial ‘prep call’ not about attack

The White House found itself on defense Wednesday following the release of emails tying a top aide to former U.N. ambassador Susan Rice's controversial Sunday show statements after the Benghazi terror attack.

During those interviews, Rice erroneously blamed the attack on protests over an anti-Islam film. New emails indicate a White House adviser helped prep her for those appearances and pushed the "video" explanation -- and now, the White House is facing credibility questions after having downplayed their role in Rice's "talking points."

During a heated briefing with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Press Secretary Jay Carney repeatedly tried to claim that the so-called "prep call" with Rice -- as it was described in one email -- was not about Benghazi. The prep session, he said, was just about the demonstrations elsewhere in the Muslim world that week.  

"It is not about Benghazi -- it is about the protests around the Muslim world," Carney claimed.

The White House has said all along that Rice relied on the best available intelligence, from the intelligence community, when she discussed the Benghazi attack.

But the documents obtained and released by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, included a Sept. 14, 2012, email from White House aide Ben Rhodes, an assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

The Rhodes email, with the subject line: "RE: PREP Call with Susan: Saturday at 4:00 pm ET," was sent to a dozen members of the administration's inner circle, including key members of the White House communications team such as Carney.

In the email, Rhodes specifically draws attention to the anti-Islam Internet video, without distinguishing whether the Benghazi attack was different from protests elsewhere.

The email lists the following two goals, among others:

"To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."

"To reinforce the President and Administration's strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges."

Republican critics, who have long claimed the administration's narrative was politically motivated, pointed to that email as a "smoking gun."

But Carney insisted that the Rhodes email was distinct from the intelligence community talking points in that it referred to preparing Rice for questions about the protests elsewhere.

"They were about the general situation in the Muslim world," Carney said, going so far as to read headlines from stories at the time that highlighted those protests -- underscoring that they were a big news story at the time.

He declined to answer directly when asked if the White House would correct the record regarding statements downplaying its role in the talking points. He did acknowledge what was evident from the Rhodes email -- that "the White House had a role in that document, obviously."

House speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement Wednesday night saying, “Four Americans lost their lives in Benghazi, and this White House has gone to extraordinary lengths to mislead, obstruct, and obscure what actually took place.

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