WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner on Friday declared he would schedule a vote to create a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack, escalating a political battle that has raged since the final days of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
Boehner said U.S. officials misled the American people after the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. He said emails released this week showed the White House has withheld documents from congressional investigators and asked, "What else about Benghazi is the Obama administration still hiding from the American people?"
"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. "These revelations compel the House to take every possible action to ensure the American people have the truth about the terrorist attack on our consulate that killed four of our countrymen."
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of seeking to deceive the public about the true circumstances of the attack during the final months of the 2012 presidential campaign — charges which the president and other U.S. officials reject.
For Boehner, appointing a select committee raises the profile of one of the Republicans' main points of attack against Obama ahead of November's midterm congressional elections, and on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ahead of what may be another presidential campaign in 2016. It could also unify the Republican approach, which showed fissures Thursday as two powerful GOP committee chairmen sparred over whether the military was prevented from responding to the attack.
Republicans have pointed a finger at one passage in particular among the 40 or so emails obtained by the watchdog group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request. Three days after the attack, Ben Rhodes, then the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications at the White House, stressed the goal of underscoring "that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy failure."
The email is dated Sept. 14, the Friday before then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday news programs and explained the Benghazi attack as a protest over a YouTube video that mocked the Islamic prophet Mohammed that was hijacked by extremists. Administration officials later changed their description of the attack and said references to a protest were inaccurate.
White House press secretary Jay Carney responded this week by saying the message was explicitly not about Benghazi but about the overall situation across the Arab world, where American embassies and consulates in several countries faced angry and sometimes violent demonstrations. U.S. officials insisted they've complied with subpoena requests.
Separately, the Republican chairman of the House oversight committee, one of several that have investigated Benghazi, said Friday he would subpoena Secretary of State John Kerry to testify about the administration's response to the attack.
Rep. Darrell Issa said he wanted Kerry to appear before the panel May 21 to explain why the latest emails were omitted from previous administration submissions to Congress.
Issa has been the GOP's most prominent investigator of the Benghazi attack. But his star witness at a hearing Thursday came under sharp criticism from a fellow California Republican, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, who heads the House Armed Services Committee.
Retired Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell told Issa's panel that U.S. forces "should have tried" to get to the Benghazi outpost in time to help save Stevens and the other Americans. Lovell blamed the State Department for not making stronger requests for action.
McKeon responded by saying Lovell didn't serve in a capacity that gave him reliable insight into the available options commanders had during the attack, and repeated his own committee's conclusions that the State Department didn't delay a decision to deploy military resources and that the military couldn't have made a difference.
Boehner said the latest documents to be released showed "greater White House involvement in misleading the American people" and amounted to a "flagrant violation of trust."
He praised the House investigations up to now but said lingering questions and the administration's lack of respect for congressional oversight required an escalation of the level of investigation.
A separate investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee found the U.S. had insufficient security at the Benghazi post and spread the blame among the State Department, the military and U.S. intelligence for missing what now seem like obvious warning signs. It also faulted Stevens for not ensuring enough protection.
A senior Republican aide said Boehner was considering Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to chair the select committee. The aide wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. It's unclear when Boehner will schedule the vote.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.