WASHINGTON — The White House Counsel's office advised senior Obama officials to keep quiet about the attack in Benghazi during the weeks preceding last year's November presidential election, according to two administration sources.
BuzzFeed has learned that key members of President Obama's national security team, including deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, pushed to release a comprehensive timeline of events documenting the attack that would also synthesize the views of the various government agencies into one report. The CIA also wanted the White House to put out such a timeline, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Those plans were quashed, however, when the White House Counsel's office, which is led by Kathryn Ruemmler, advised the officials to not release any information to the public out of fear it could be used against them in any subsequent investigations and other legal complications.
The White House told BuzzFeed any suggestion that Ruemmler shot down the release of the Benghazi timeline was "off base" — but an official said the White House would not comment "on leaks out of purported internal deliberations."
BuzzFeed's sources said the legal advice proved frustrating for a number of officials in the president's orbit, who felt they would have better served to put to rest controversy that has lasted nine months.
"It was aggravating," one administration official said. "It comes back to Kathryn Ruemmler, Kathyrn Ruemmler, Kathryn Ruemmler. I hate to say it, as it sounds like piling on, but it's on her doorstep too."
Ruemmler has also come under fire this week for not making the president and others aware of the IRS investigation.
Rhodes and other officials believed that the best way to squash the controversy was to be as open and transparent as possible. From the beginning, Obama officials at the White House have maintained that they had nothing to hide, their moves were not politically motivated, and that there was no intention of misleading the U.S. public. The disclosure of emails between Rhodes and others that were released appear to back up this point of view—the massaging of talking points more an exercise in inter-agency bureaucracy than an a political plot, as Republicans in Congresss continue to allege. A senior administration official reiterated to BuzzFeed this week that White House officials provided access to emails detailing internal administration deliberations over talking points on the Benghazi attacks to Congress for review, negating Republican claims that the White House had something to hide.
After the attack on the American outpost in September 2012, the State Department and the CIA both put out separate timelines of the Benghazi attack. Behind the scenes, according to BuzzFeed's sources, as the administration came under increasing scrutiny heading into the final weeks of the presidential campaign, key officials felt they were getting unfairly hammered for their handling of the crisis. Rhodes and others would privately say that their hands were somewhat tied in the public response due to the fact that there was such a large CIA presence in Benghazi, but other than that felt the had nothing to hide in how they responded to the crisis, especially.
"What we were saying inside was what we said outside," says another senior administration, dismissing the Republican allegations of intentionally misleading the public. "We wanted to get a timeline out there."
Rhodes did not respond to an email from BuzzFeed about internal complaints about the White House counsel's office.
By October — a month before the election — sources say the White House were preparing to put out their own timeline, one that would take into account their own actions as well as others.
The counsel's office decision to advise against the released of a unified timeline may have seemed prudent at the time, but some White House officials feel that earlier public disclosures could have prevented the story from growing into the persistent irritant it has become in Obama's second term.
Contact Michael Hastings at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.