Republicans look for cover-up as Benghazi debate revived

WASHINGTON Thu May 9, 2013 6:14pm EDT

House Speaker John Boehner holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

House Speaker John Boehner holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington March 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican campaign to highlight the Obama administration's handling of a deadly attack in Libya last year gained momentum on Thursday after a dramatic hearing breathed life into the party's accusations of negligence and cover-up.

The Republican U.S. House of Representatives speaker, John Boehner, demanded that the White House order the State Department to release more emails about the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

His remarks kept up the pressure a day after a dramatic congressional hearing on the attack won headlines for Republican accusations that Washington failed to respond quickly enough to the assault by suspected Islamist militants.

Hinting at a cover-up, Boehner said the public should have access to emails about who the State Department believed was behind the killings on September 11, 2012, and the administration's early public comments on the attack.

Congressional Republicans say the administration initially tried to play down the assault in Benghazi as stemming from spontaneous demonstrations, as opposed to being a planned terrorist operation.

"Last November, the president said he was 'happy to cooperate in any way Congress wants,'" Boehner told a news conference. "This is his chance."

Republicans have been intensely focused on the Benghazi attack but have so far failed to inflict much political damage on President Barack Obama or his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Congressional committees have since around a dozen hearings on Benghazi. More are in the works. There are five different committees in the Republican-led House investigating Benghazi: Oversight, Intelligence, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Judiciary.

Democrats accuse Republicans of a long, politically motivated fishing expedition for details of a scandal that is not there, seeking to tarnish Obama and Clinton, who headed the State Department at the time of the attack and is considered the top Democratic prospect for the 2016 presidential race.

Democrats insist little new information emerged from Wednesday's hearing of the House Oversight Committee, at which Gregory Hicks, a former top U.S. diplomat in Libya, gave a dramatic account of the night that ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

'GET TO THE TRUTH'

Republicans say any information that explains what happened in Benghazi is worthwhile.

"The goal here is to get to the truth," Boehner said. "The reason this is still under way is because the White House has done everything possible to block access to the information that would outline the truth. And the question you have to ask is, 'Why?'"

Email traffic is central to what Republicans say is an attempt to play down the seriousness of the assault in Libya's second city.

At Wednesday's hearing, Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina read what he said was an email sent by Acting Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones on September 12 blaming the violence in Benghazi on a group affiliated with Islamic militants.

Boehner said the State Department did not let House committees keep copies of the email and called on Obama to order State to release it.

He also called for the release of emails that a House report said showed Obama's White House and State Department were involved in rewriting "talking points" on Benghazi used by Susan Rice, Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, on television talk shows shortly after the event.

Administration officials dismissed suggestions that they have not cooperated or that there has been a cover-up. They said they were working on the emails with Congress and that there were issues with secrecy rules.

The State Department denied Hicks' suggestion that he had been demoted as retaliation for expressing his views about Libya. "The department has not and will not retaliate against Mr. Hicks," spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a news briefing.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said administration officials have testified at 11 congressional hearings, held 20 staff briefings and provided more than 25,000 pages of documents.

And, he noted, the investigation by the board headed by retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Admiral Mike Mullen found that the response to Benghazi was timely, appropriate and helped save the lives of two wounded Americans.

"Yet some Congressional Republicans continue to politicize this process for their own partisan purposes and that is regrettable," Schultz said.

Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight committee, and one of the Republicans leading the party's Benghazi charge, wants to interview Pickering and Mullen, congressional aides said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Mark Felsenthal and Paul Eckert; Editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham)