WASHINGTON — Even though their key charges have been refuted — some by their own members — House Republicans announced Friday they’ll seek to form a select committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, trying anew to reap political gains in advance of this year’s congressional elections and the 2016 presidential contest.
House Speaker John Boehner’s call for a special panel coupled with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s subpoena compelling Secretary of State John Kerry to testify about the attacks signals a new and more aggressive phase of Republican attempts to blame the Obama administration for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The double-barreled moves will keep a spotlight on Benghazi — an issue that revs up the Republican and conservative base — in the midst of a congressional election year and ahead of the 2016 presidential contest in which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a potential Democratic candidate. She oversaw the State Department when the assaults occurred on Sept. 11, 2012.
“You create a special committee if you want a bigger spotlight on a subject, which is more 2014-, 2016-related,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident political scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute. “With Benghazi, while it’s true he (Issa) is bringing in Kerry, most of the focus is on Clinton.”
Many of the original charges that blamed the White House for the deaths have never held up. But Republicans ramped up their efforts this week with the emergence of new e-mails that they have labeled a “smoking gun.”
“Americans learned this week that the Obama administration is so intent on obstructing the truth about Benghazi that it is even willing to defy subpoenas issued by the standing committees of the People’s House,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “In light of these new developments, the House will vote to establish a new select committee to investigate the attack, provide the necessary accountability, and ensure justice is finally served.”
No lawmakers were named to the select committee Friday, but Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a former federal prosecutor, is reportedly being considered by House Republican leaders to chair the panel.
“Trey Gowdy is the person most qualified to lead this investigation,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
Congressional Democrats and State Department officials denounced the move. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office noted that Boehner had previously shunned the idea of a select committee.
“I see no reason to break up all the work that’s been done and to take months and months to create some select committee,” Boehner said last month on Fox News.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of “trying to rekindle debunked right-wing conspiracy theories” as part of their election strategy.
At the State Department, officials expressed surprise and dismay about Issa’s subpoena. Issa, R-Calif., wants Kerry to testify on May 21, a date the secretary is scheduled to be in Mexico.
“And we are surprised in the first instance, they resorted to a subpoena given we’ve been cooperating all along with the committee and did not reach out (to the State Department) before they did so,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Issa’s subpoena came a day after retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell, who was on duty in Germany during the Benghazi attack, told Issa’s committee that U.S. military personnel knew the assault on the U.S. facilities was a “hostile action” and not a protest gone wrong, as the White House initially said.
Lovell said that as the attack raged on, military command held discussions “that churned on about what we should do.” He testified that the command was “waiting for a request for assistance from the State Department.”
But a leading Republican voice on military issues, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, quickly undercut Lovell’s claims. Breaking with other members of his party, McKeon issued a statement calling Lovell an unreliable witness.
“BG Lovell did not serve in a capacity that gave him reliable insight into operational options available to commanders during the attack, nor did he offer specific courses of action not taken,” McKeon said in a statement. “The Armed Services Committee has interviewed more than a dozen witnesses in the operational chain of command that night, yielding thousands of pages of transcripts, emails and other documents. We have no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources (Department of Defense) had available to respond.”
Since opening its probe in October 2012, Issa’s committee has produced no proof of the key Republican charges that the White House failed to adequately respond to the attacks and purposely misled the nation about what happened in order to safeguard Obama’s campaign for a second term, which he in part based on his record fighting terrorism.
Republicans focused on assertions made by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on five Sunday talks shows five days after the assaults. She said that the attacks grew out of a spontaneous protest triggered by a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against an anti-Islam online video.
She downplayed suggestions that the Benghazi assaults were pre-planned attacks by Islamic radicals, as assessed by the U.S. military and American personnel in Libya and as reported that day by McClatchy. The administration would later conclude the same.
But internal administration e-mails released in May 2013 showed that it was the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Assessment — not the White House — that wrote a talking point given to Rice and members of Congress that said the assaults stemmed from a demonstration sparked by protests in Cairo against the video.
“We believe that based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its (CIA) annex,” the talking point said.
A final version of that talking point, edited by then-Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell, was virtually identical to the original, the e-mails showed.
Issa and other Republicans this week revived their charge that the administration sought to hide the true nature of the assault after a conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, released a Sept. 14, 2012, e-mail from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes that it obtained in a Freedom of Information lawsuit.
In the e-mail, Rhodes advised Rice to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy statement.”
The time on the e-mail — 8:09 p.m. — shows that the White House had received the original CIA talking point five hours earlier.
The White House on Wednesday also insisted that Rhodes’ e-mail concerned Arab Spring unrest gripping the Middle East.
Republicans also contended that the administration failed to dispatch U.S. special forces or other military assets to repulse the attacks.
But a February 2014 report by the Republican majority of the House Armed Services Committee determined that U.S. military commanders lacked a clear picture of what was transpiring in Benghazi and that there were no U.S. military units that could have reached the scene in time.
“Majority members have not yet discerned any response alternatives that could have likely changed the outcome of the Benghazi attack,” said the report.
Issa and other Republicans sought to revive the question of a military reaction after Lovell testified Thursday. But then McKeon issued his statement rejecting Lovell’s assertions.
A December 2012 independent review board report sustained Republican charges that security at the U.S. facilities in Benghazi and at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, was inadequate given the threat from Islamist militias that overthrew the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It also found that repeated requests for stronger security by Stevens and other officials were denied.
The board blamed senior managers in two State Department bureaus for the insufficient security, but it didn’t hold any individuals accountable.
Issa sought to hold Clinton responsible, pointing to her signature on an April 2012 cable denying an embassy request for additional security.
However, all State Department cables routinely bear the secretary of state’s signature. Moreover, the accountability board backed up Clinton’s assertion that the security of the facilities in Libya never rose to her level.
Jonathan Landay, James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed.