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House intensifies Benghazi investigations. Why now?

Secretary of State John Kerry has been issued a subpoena to testify on Benghazi before the House Oversight Committee. House Speaker John Boehner says he will schedule a vote on the creation of a special Benghazi committee.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 29, 2014. Boehner says he'll establish a special committee to investigate Benghazi attack.

Congressional Republicans on Friday took several steps to intensify their investigation of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of the US ambassador and three other Americans.

First, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, issued a subpoena intended to force Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before the panel on Benghazi.

Representative Issa indicated that the event pushing him to this action was the release earlier this week of a memo drawn up shortly after the attack by Ben Rhodes, a White House national security communications aide. The document dealt with preparing Susan Rice, then US ambassador to the United Nations, for a round of Sunday talk show appearances.

Republicans say the memo shows Mr. Rhodes pushing to purposely play down the involvement of suspected members of Al Qaeda in the attack, as the presence of Islamists at the scene of the crime would undercut the administration’s insistence that terrorism was declining, with an election only months away.

Issa said it’s the memo’s belated appearance, as well as its contents, that has angered him. His committee subpoenaed Benghazi-related papers last year. Yet the Rhodes document in its full form became public only after it was provided recently to the conservative group Judicial Watch, pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.

“The fact that these documents were withheld from Congress for more than 19 months is alarming. The [State] Department is not entitled to delay responsive materials because it is embarrassing or implicates the roles and actions of senior officials,” Issa wrote.

In addition, House Speaker John Boehner said Friday that he will schedule a vote on the creation of a special committee to investigate the Benghazi incident. Speaker Boehner said that the administration has misled the United States about the attacks and the public deserves the truth.

“What else about Benghazi is the Obama administration still hiding from the American people?” Boehner said.

The practical effect of these moves remains to be seen. Presidents often resist congressional subpoenas on grounds of executive privilege, and courts prefer that those two branches of government work things out between themselves, if possible.

In terms of the subpoena of Secretary Kerry in particular, the administration will probably argue that (a) Kerry was a senator at the time the attack occurred, (b) Kerry was a senator when Congress first subpoenaed Benghazi documents from the White House, and (c) Kerry testifies often before the House on matters of foreign affairs and thus would be available to answer Benghazi questions as a routine matter.

As to the establishment of a special committee, the Democratic question will be why another panel is necessary, given that Issa’s Oversight Committee has long been investigating the matter, as well as the Armed Services Committee and other House panels.

As a political matter, the moves may keep Benghazi in the news as the midterm elections approach.

Democratic and Republican voters have wildly divergent opinions about the investigations into the attack, if past polls are an accurate indication. In a May 2013 Pew survey, 70 percent of Republicans said the Obama administration had been dishonest on Benghazi. In contrast, 62 percent of Democrats said it had been honest.

Overall, Benghazi does not excite broad public interest, Pew wrote at the time. In that context, it may serve as a means for Republicans to keep their base stirred up and eager to go to the polls when indications are that the party could take control of the Senate while maintaining its grip on the House.

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