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Republicans look for cover-up as Benghazi debate revived

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. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican in Congress demanded on Thursday that the Obama administration release emails about its handling of last year's deadly attack in Libya, after a dramatic congressional hearing breathed life into the party's accusations of negligence and cover-up.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner called on the White House to order the State Department to make public more internal emails sent after the killings in Benghazi of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Boehner's remarks kept up pressure a day after the hearing - dismissed by Democrats as mostly partisan posturing - won front-page headlines following months of Republican accusations that Washington failed to respond quickly enough to the assault by suspected Islamist militants on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.

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

Republican critics believe the emails could reveal evidence that the administration initially tried to play down the assault in Benghazi as stemming from spontaneous demonstrations by Libyans, as opposed to being a planned militant operation.

The emails are believed to detail senior diplomats' views of who was behind the September 11, 2012, attacks and how administration officials discussed ways to present the incident to the public.

The State Department said it had already been working with Congress to provide the emails it wants - a process complicated by secrecy rules.

Republicans have been complaining loudly about the Benghazi attack for eight months, often without much attention in the mainstream media.

The killings and their aftermath have - until this week at least - failed to inflict much political damage on President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who headed the State Department at the time of the attack and is considered the top Democratic prospect for the 2016 presidential race.

Clinton is clearly a major focus of Republicans' attempts to get to the heart of what they believe is a national security scandal.

Foreign Policy magazine counted 32 separate discussions mentioning Clinton during Wednesday's hearing of the House Oversight Committee. The featured witness was Gregory Hicks, a former top U.S. diplomat in Libya who gave a dramatic account of the night that Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

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

PLAYING POLITICS?

Chris Lehane, a veteran of congressional investigations of former President Bill Clinton's White House, said Republicans were using the hearings just to pressure the Obama administration.

"Congress using and sometimes abusing the investigative process is about as predictable as the cicadas coming to D.C., although it happens much more frequently," said Lehane, referring to an insect that emerges in huge numbers on the East Coast periodically.

The White House dismissed suggestions of a cover-up, noting that administration officials had testified at 11 congressional hearings and provided more than 25,000 pages of documents.

Republicans deny political motivation, and say any information that explains what happened in Benghazi is worthwhile.

Email traffic is central to what they say is the administration's attempt to diminish the seriousness of the assault in Benghazi at the height of the U.S. presidential election campaign.

"The story of Benghazi is that after the attack, seven weeks before an election, there was an effort by some senior people to put a political spin on this," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Rather than tell the story that it was a terrorist attack from the get-go because it was so close to the election."

At Wednesday's hearing, Republican 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 Islamist militants.

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

He also called for the release of emails that a House report said showed that Obama's White House and State Department were involved in rewriting "talking points" on Benghazi used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to give the administration's version of events on television talk shows shortly after the attack.

Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who helped lead an investigation into the attack, scoffed at Republican allegations. "From my own personal perspective, it was tantamount to Pulitzer Prize-level fiction if one could find a cover-up here," Pickering said.

Lehane, a crisis communications specialist, said Clinton appeared to be shielded from accusations that she handled Benghazi badly because she was careful right after the attack not to misspeak.

"This is a basic principle of crisis management," he said. "It's a complicated world and it's a dangerous world, but the way they evaluate you is how you handle it in the aftermath. If you do it in an honest way, then you protect yourself."

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

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