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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.

 During the week of the Benghazi attack, protests had broken out by U.S. embassies in several countries in Africa and the Middle East, including intense demonstrations in Cairo. But by the time of Rice's Sunday show appearances, the death of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi was the dominant story -- Carney faced skepticism in the briefing room in claiming that the Rhodes email was not referring, at least in large part, to that. 

Further, the document sent to Judicial Watch was released in response to a request for records pertaining to Benghazi. 

And the same memo was sent to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, likewise, following a subpoena seeking Benghazi documents. 

"If this is not a smoking gun, proving beyond any doubt, the story told by the administration about Benghazi was politically motivated and fabricated, nothing will ever prove that," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. 

On the heels of the email release, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., renewed his call for a select committee to be established to investigate. He wrote House Speaker John Boehner a letter saying "it is now abundantly clear that senior White House staff were directly involved in coordinating the messaging in response to the Benghazi attacks and were actively working to tie the reason to the infamous Internet video." 

The "video" explanation, though, was not only coming from the White House. Late on Sept. 11, 2012, when the attack was still going on, Hillary Clinton's State Department issued a statement that read: "Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to an inflammatory material posted on the internet. ... let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind." 

Fox News' Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.