WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner declared Friday he would create a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack, providing Republicans with a high-profile forum to target the Obama administration's credibility ahead of crucial midterm elections.
Boehner said U.S. officials misled the American people after the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost 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."
Separately, the Republican chairman of the House oversight committee, one of several investigating the violence, said Friday he would subpoena Secretary of State John Kerry to testify about the administration's response to the attack.
Republicans have accused President Barack Obama and his top aides of seeking to deceive the public about the true circumstances of a major, al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack during the final months of the 2012 presidential campaign — charges that the president and other U.S. officials reject. But administration officials didn't mention intelligence suggesting the Benghazi attack was distinct from simultaneous, anti-American protests elsewhere in the Arab world.
The State Department, which ordered an independent review days after the assault, called the notion that it has stonewalled multiple, ongoing congressional investigations "just false."
"We've produced tens of thousands of documents. We've done nine hearings, 46 briefings," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Friday. She called a select committee unnecessary: "How many more taxpayer dollars are we going to spend trying to prove a political point that in 18 months they haven't been able to prove?"
The White House did not immediately respond to Boehner's comments.
For Boehner, a select committee raises the profile of one of the Republicans' main points of attack against Obama ahead of November's elections, which could swing the Senate to GOP control. Benghazi is a rallying cry for the conservative GOP base and will be critical for fundraising and getting voters to the polls in typically low-turnout midterm contests.
A long-term investigation by a select committee could also provide a vehicle for Republican attacks on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ahead of another potential presidential run in 2016. And it could 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.
Boehner could schedule a vote as early as next week, a senior Republican aide said, which is a formality given the GOP's control of the House. Democrats controlling the Senate have shown no interest in launching a similar probe. Boehner has been under intense pressure from rank-and-file conservatives and outside groups for a year to make the move.
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 was written 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.
Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Rhodes' reminder 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.
The oversight committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he wanted Kerry to appear before the panel May 21 to explain why the latest emails were omitted from previous administration submissions.
The State Department said Kerry plans to travel to Mexico around that time.
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.
Issa voiced support Friday for Boehner's decision but vowed to pursue his own investigation further.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted the select committee would be a "partisan political circus."
A separate, bipartisan examination 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 found no instances of the administration intentionally deceiving the public.
The 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.