WASHINGTON -- Even though their key charges have been refuted -- some by their own members -- House Republicans announced Friday that 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 a subpoena from Darrell Issa, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman -- 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 Rodham Clinton is a potential Democratic candidate. She oversaw the State Department when the assaults occurred 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 [Mr. 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 emails 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," Mr. 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 it.
Congressional Democrats and State Department officials denounced the move. The office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noted that Mr. Boehner had previously shunned the select committee idea. "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," the speaker had said last month on Fox News.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of "trying to rekindle debunked right wing conspiracy theories" in an election strategy.
At the State Department, officials expressed surprise and dismay about Mr. Issa's subpoena. Mr. Issa, R-Calif., wants Mr. Kerry to testify 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. Issa's committee that U.S. military personnel knew the assault on the U.S. facilities was a "hostile action," not a protest gone wrong, as the White House initially said. Mr. 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 GOP voice on military issues, Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, quickly undercut Mr. Lovell's claims. Breaking with other Republicans, Mr. McKeon issued a statement calling Mr. Lovell an unreliable witness.
"[Gen.] 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," Mr. 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 [the Department of Defense] had available to respond."
Since opening its probe in October 2012, Mr. 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 to safeguard Mr. 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 U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on five Sunday talks shows five days after the assaults. She said 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 U.S. personnel in Libya. The Obama administration would later conclude the same.
But internal administration emails 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 Ms. Rice and members of Congress that said the assaults stemmed from a demonstration sparked by Cairo protests 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 emails showed.
Mr. Issa and other Republicans this week revived their charge that the administration sought to hide the assault's true nature after a conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, released a Sept. 14, 2012, email from Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, it obtained in a Freedom of Information lawsuit. He tells Ms. Rice in the email to "underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy statement."
The time on the email -- 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 Mr. Rhodes' email concerned Arab Spring unrest gripping the Middle East.
A December 2012 independent review board report blamed senior managers in two State Department bureaus for insufficient security, but it didn't hold any individuals accountable.
Mr. Issa sought to hold Ms. Clinton responsible, pointing to her signature on an April 2012 cable denying an embassy request for more security. But all State Department cables routinely bear the secretary of state's signature. Moreover, the accountability board backed Ms. Clinton's assertion that the security of facilities in Libya never rose to her level.