Secretary of State John Kerry has agreed to appear before the House Oversight Committee to testify about the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, a move that injects the nation’s top diplomat squarely into the middle of a fight between a pair of dueling congressional panels.
The State Department has made no secret that it has viewed House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa’s May 2 subpoena with disdain given the lack of advance notice ahead of its issuance and the politically-charged way it says Issa is conducting the investigation. Still, in accepting Issa’s subpoena, it’s making one thing clear to House Republicans: Kerry’s only testifying to one of their Benghazi panels, not both.
"The Secretary is prepared to appear before the committee on June 12 or June 20," reads the State Department’s letter to Issa, obtained by Foreign Policy. "In doing so, we believe this would remove any need for the Secretary to appear before the Select Committee to answer additional questions."
Whether intentional or not, the decision plays off and exacerbates the internal divisions within the Republican Party over who should lead its investigation into Benghazi. According to House Speaker John Boehner, the committee taking the lead on the investigation is the Benghazi Select Committee led by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy. On May 2, Boehner announced his intent to create the committee after new White House e-mails surfaced that raised fresh questions about the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack. "It was time for us to bring this together into one place and to focus our efforts," Boehner told reporters this month. "This is all about getting to the truth."
There was just one problem: Issa didn’t want to stop his investigation. Hours before Boehner announced his plans for the select committee, Issa issued a subpoena for Kerry’s attendance at his own House Oversight Committee. Issa, long seen as the lead investigator for Republicans, showed no signs of wanting to play second fiddle to Gowdy, a young Republican with a reputation for tenacity as a district attorney in South Carolina.
"I am issuing a new subpoena to compel you to appear before the Committee to answer questions about your agency’s response to the congressional investigation of the Benghazi attack," Issa said on May 2, hours before Boehner’s comments.
Now that Kerry has agreed to appear before the Oversight Committee, and not the select committee, it raises further questions about who’s in charge and which committee is speaking for the House of Representatives — one of Boehner’s stated goals of establishing the committee in the first place. "In my view, these discoveries compel the House to respond as one institution, and establish one select committee," he said on the House floor on May 8.
It’s also unclear if Gowdy will willingly take a backseat to Issa as the California Republican interrogates the most senior State Department official about the attacks. A spokesperson for Gowdy, Amanda Duvall, would not reveal whether her boss would let Issa be the sole interrogator of Kerry. "The Benghazi Select Committee will talk to all material witnesses as many times as necessary to discover all relevant facts and answer all relevant questions in a manner consistent with fair practice and respectful of the witnesses’ other responsibilities," she said.
Meanwhile, Issa spokesman Frederick Hill says the Oversight Committee has accepted Kerry’s requested date and is eager to host him. "Chairman Issa accepted the Secretary’s offer to testify on June 12," said Hill. "The Committee looks forward to his appearance."