WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans and Democrats are waging a political battle over attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi in September that killed Washington's ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
Republicans say the attacks exposed a security lapse that Democrats are trying to cover up, while Democrats contend that the incident was the type of tragedy that occurs in a dangerous world and accuse Republicans of politicizing it.
In an attempt to defuse the controversy, the White House released around 100 pages of emails on Wednesday detailing discussion inside the administration about how to present the attacks to the public.
Here are some details of the attacks and the debate that resulted:
During the night of September 11-12, 2012, militants believed to have ties to al Qaeda affiliates attacked a loosely guarded U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby, better-fortified CIA annex in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. The battle lasted hours, with dozens of armed men attacking the compound and firing mortars at the annex.
Gregory Hicks, who was second-in-command at the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Tripoli, during the attacks, gave emotional testimony in Congress a week ago in which he contended that more could have been done to stop the assault. He said a U.S. military aircraft could have been scrambled from Italy in a few hours, contradicting testimony by General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that it would have taken 20 hours. Hicks also said a team of four special forces officers could have been sent from Tripoli but was ordered not to go.
THE 'TALKING POINTS'
Many of the Republicans' accusations of a cover-up stem from the unclassified "talking point" memos from intelligence agencies that were used to prepare U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice before she appeared on television talk shows on September 16. In those appearances, she suggested that the attacks were a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islamic film rather than a premeditated assault. The Obama administration insists the talking points were based on the best information available at the time but has since acknowledged that militants linked to al Qaeda were in fact behind the attacks and that there was no demonstration in Benghazi. Republicans call the talking points an effort to paint the attacks as unrelated to terrorism so as to protect President Barack Obama from accusations he was weak on national security as he ran for re-election.
According to the emails released by the White House on Wednesday, the talking points went through extensive revisions between the White House, State Department and intelligence agencies and were scrubbed clean of references to warnings from spy agencies about militant threats in the Benghazi area before the attack.
THE ARB REPORT
The attacks were investigated by an Accountability Review Board, or ARB, headed by Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador in the Middle East, Russia and India, and retired Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The scathing findings issued on December 18 determined that security at the mission was grossly inadequate, and cited "leadership and management" deficiencies, poor coordination among U.S. officials and "real confusion" over who had responsibility and power to make decisions.
Republicans argue that nobody has been punished for the deaths of the four Americans in Benghazi. Four State Department employees, including the head of diplomatic security, were placed on administrative leave as a result of the report, but none has been fired. There has been no report - at least none released publicly - that militants responsible for the attacks have been captured or killed.
POLITICAL FALLOUT FOR DEMOCRATS
Obama's opponents hoped the administration's response to Benghazi would tarnish the high marks that Americans give him for fighting terrorism - the U.S. leader was widely praised for launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. But Benghazi never became a major issue in the November 6 presidential election.
Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attacks, scored political points for quickly taking responsibility for the tragedy at Benghazi and for a forceful performance during hours of testimony in January at Senate and House of Representatives committee hearings on the attacks.
It is not clear whether the latest dispute over Benghazi-related emails will dim Clinton's presidential prospects if she were to run in 2016. She left the State Department in January as one of the country's most popular public figures and a high credibility rating. Republicans, however, have tried consistently to link her to the Benghazi attacks. Foreign Policy magazine counted 32 discussions involving the former secretary of state during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Benghazi last week. American Crossroads, a pro-Republican "Super PAC" group, released an Internet video on Friday focusing on questions about Clinton's role in a possible "cover-up" over the evolving explanations for the incident.
The main political casualty of the Benghazi affair so far is Rice, who withdrew her name from consideration as secretary of state in December after criticism from Republicans about the talking points and her television appearances.
POLITICAL FALLOUT FOR REPUBLICANS
The party's 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, issued a statement the night of the assault accusing Obama of "sympathizing with those who waged the attacks." The statement was a hasty response that was generally seen as a mistake. Obama also scored political points when Romney said during a debate that the president had not quickly labeled the assault an act of terrorism almost immediately, which Obama quickly pointed out was not true.
Congress has held about a dozen hearings on Benghazi, with more in the works. The attacks are being examined by five committees of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and also are a constant focus of discussion by Republicans outside Congress. Administration officials have testified at 11 congressional hearings, held 20 staff briefings and provided over 25,000 pages of documents to congressional investigators, the White House says.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Jeff Mason, Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu)