House GOP targets close Clinton aides in latest Benghazi demand

Olivier Knox

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Tuesday issued subpoenas for all State Department documents related to inaccurate talking points used to explain the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack.

“The State Department has not lived up to the Administration’s broad and unambiguous promises of cooperation with Congress. Therefore, I am left with no alternative but to compel the State Department to produce relevant documents through a subpoena,” Issa said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Issa’s demand notably includes any documents and internal communications crafted by longtime Hillary Clinton confidantes Philippe Reines and Cheryl Mills. Democrats have charged that Republicans are eager to use the tragedy to cripple Clinton’s rumored 2016 presidential aspirations.

The Republican lawmaker is seeking documents and communications from 10 current or former senior State Department officials, including Reines and Mills. Issa's letter gives Kerry until June 7 to produce them for the committee.

For months, Republicans have pounded the administration’s handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. In mid-May, President Barack Obama denounced the GOP's onslaught as a "political circus."

Much of the Republican criticism has focused on talking points that Congress requested in order to explain the tragedy to the public without spilling national security secrets. The talking points, drafted by the CIA with input from the State Department and other agencies in a process overseen by the White House, wrongly described the attack as growing spontaneously out of a demonstration.

In his letter, Issa referred to an email the day after the attacks in which acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones said she had told the Libyan governor that "the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists." At one point in the drafting of the talking points, the document noted that the group's leadership had denied ordering the attack, but not that some of its members might have taken part. The final version did not include that point.

Issa said that the process that led to that talking point being scrubbed is "at the heart of the Committee's ongoing investigation" and that the panel wants to see who else, if anyone, shaped the process.

Issa did not say why he was skeptical of the explanation provided in emails recently made public by the administration—and produced to Issa's committee. Then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland objected to "arming members of Congress to start making assertions to the media that we ourselves are not making because we don't want to prejudice the investigation."

"Why do we want Hill to be fingering Ansar al Sharia, when we aren't doing that ourselves until we have investigation results?" she asked.

Republicans have also pounded the State Department over Nuland's warning, in the same email, that including past CIA warnings about extremist threats in Benghazi "could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either? Concerned..."

Issa told Kerry that "publicly available information about the talking points creates the appearance that Administration officials were interested in sparing the State Department from political criticism in the wake of the attacks."

In response, the State Department said it had offered "an unprecedented degree of cooperation" with Congress—but stopped short of saying it would comply with this latest demand.

"The State Department remains committed to working cooperatively with the Congress and we will take stock of any new or outstanding requests for information, and determine the appropriate next steps," spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement emailed to reporters.