State Dept. pushed back on White House’s Libya claims

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The Department of State is pushing back against top White House aides who have tried to blame it for not doing enough to defend the facility in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the Sept. 11 jihad attack.

On Friday, the department released an Oct. 9 background press briefing, during which a State Department official contradicted the White House’s claim about the video.

The move is unusual, because the transcripts of most background briefings are not released — especially if they involve a direct disagreement between the department and the White House.

The contradiction came late in the briefing, when a reporter asked the State Department official to explain “what in all of these [Benghazi] events … led officials to believe for the first several days that this was prompted by protests against the video?”

“That is a question that you would have to ask others. That was not our conclusion,” responded the official.

“The Ambassador walked guests out around 8:30 or so, there was no one on the street at approximately 9:40, then there was the noise and then we saw on the cameras the — a large number of armed men assaulting the compound.”

The press event was held the day prior to a House hearing, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, that showed how State Department officials actually reduced security measures at the Benghazi facility, despite increasing threats from nearby jihadi groups.

During the hearing, senior State Department officials tried to blame intelligence agencies when they were asked why they denied multiple requests for extra security of diplomatic facilities in Libya.

Their focus on the intelligence agencies diverted blame away from senior officials — such as Clinton or White House officials. (RELATED: Axelrod blames State Dept. for security issues at Benghazi consulate)

In March 2011, President Barack Obama decided to overthrow the country’s dictator, Moammar Gadhafi.

However, Obama declined to deploy ground troops. Those decisions have left the new Libyan government divided, weak and dependent on cooperation from the various militia and jihadi groups formed during the civil war.

During the Issa hearing, two whistle-blowers said their request for extra security were denied because of top-level opposition in the State Department.

“His response to that was, you’re asking for the sun, moon and the stars,” former Department of State Libyan Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom told the hearing.

“My response to him … I said, ‘Jim, you know what makes — most frustrating about this assignment? … ‘It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me,’ and I added it by saying, ‘For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building,'” Nordstrom said.

The White House’s election-season effort to focus the blame on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is politically risky, partly because Clinton can use aides and allies to redirect the blame back to the White House during the final weeks of the campaign.

The finger-pointing helps keep the issue on the front-pages and it provides Gov. Mitt Romney numerous opportunities to criticize Obama’s ability to manage the nation’s foreign-affairs.

On Tuesday, the two candidates will face-off at a townhall event in New York, where Obama may be asked to explain why he repeatedly suggested that the attack was a unpredictable mob-reaction to a little known California video critical of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed.

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