US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference at the White House in Washington, November 14, 2012© REUTERS/ Kevin Lamarque
WASHINGTON, November 15 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) US President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he has “no evidence” of national security breaches in connection with the resignation last week of US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief David Petraeus over an extramarital affair.
“I have no evidence at this point, from what I’ve seen, that classified information was disclosed that would have had a negative impact on our national security,” Obama told reporters in his first news conference since his reelection last week.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama addressed a range of issues Wednesday, including a possible standoff with Republicans over his proposed tax hikes for the wealthiest Americans, the deadly attack on a US Embassy compound in Libya in September, his plans to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the civil war in Syria.
Obama was clearly eager to move on from questions about the salacious circumstances surrounding Petraeus’ exit from the CIA, saying he is “withholding judgment” on a decision by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to wait until after the Nov. 6 election to inform the White House of Petraeus’ affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
The FBI is said to have learned of the illicit relationship this past summer amid an investigation into Broadwell’s alleged cyber-harassment of a woman she reportedly perceived as a rival for the US spy chief’s affections.
Law enforcement officials cited by US media have said they withheld information about the case from top US officials because it had not reached the threshold of a national security concern.
“It’s also possible that had we been told, you’d be sitting here asking: ‘Why were you interfering in a criminal investigation?’” Obama told reporters.
The Petraeus case has also ensnared Gen. John Allen, the top American commander in Afghanistan, who is being investigated for possible “inappropriate communications” with a Florida socialite allegedly harassed by Broadwell via anonymous emails.
Petraeus is scheduled to testify before a US Senate committee on Thursday about the Sept. 11 attack on an American embassy compound in Benghazi, which left four Americans diplomats dead, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of failing to adequately protect the US diplomats killed in the Benghazi attack, and they have criticized the White House for giving a conflicting account of the circumstances surrounding the attack.
The lightning rod for this criticism has been Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who publicly suggested shortly after the attack that militants stormed the compound amid a protest over an anti-Islam film posted on YouTube.
The US government has since stated the assault appears to have been carefully planned by armed militants.
Obama bristled at Wednesday’s news conference when asked to comment on a vow by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to block Rice from becoming the next US Secretary of State should Hillary Clinton step down and Obama opt to nominate her.
Republican attempts to smear Rice’s reputation in connection with the Benghazi attack are “outrageous,” Obama said.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said.
Rice had “nothing to do with Benghazi” and made her comments on the attack “based on intelligence that she had received,” Obama added.
Graham issued a statement shortly after the conclusion of Wednesday’s news conference, telling Obama that he “failed as Commander in Chief before, during, and after the attack”
“Mr. President, don’t think for one minute I don’t hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi,” Graham said in the statement.
Obama also said Wednesday that he planned to “make a push in the coming months” to “open up a dialogue” with Iran and dissuade Tehran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Economic sanctions and international cooperation on the issue are already paying dividends, he added.
“We’re not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon, but I think there is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically,” Obama said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week reiterated his call for direct talks with the U.S., Iranian media reported.
On the matter of the Syrian Civil War, Obama said Wednesday that he is not prepared to recognize the Syrian opposition as a “government in exile,” though he said he does consider the umbrella group seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad “a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people.”
He added that the United States and its allies must be cautious about arming the Syrian opposition, given the possibility that these weapons could fall into the hands of extremists.
“We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition, and one of the things that we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we are not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks that would do Americans harm,” Obama said.
Addressing the looming so-called “fiscal cliff”—which would require the US government to enact drastic budget cuts should lawmakers fail to reach a deal on the federal budget by Jan. 1, 2013—Obama reiterated throughout Wednesday’s news conference that he will not extend tax cuts enacted under his predecessor, George W. Bush, to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
“A modest tax increase on the wealthy is not going to break their backs,” Obama said, adding that the approach is based on basic “arithmetic” to get America’s financial house in order. “They'll still be wealthy.”
Failing to act could send America spiraling back into recession, Obama said.
He added that his position on taxes was evident throughout the presidential campaign, and that his reelection last week gave him a mandate to push forward with his agenda on the issue.
“The majority of voters agreed with me,” Obama said.
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