WASHINGTON - Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday he's determined to answer any questions related to the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, as the House Republican leader pushed for more information from the Obama administration.
One day after a lengthy House hearing on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, Kerry told reporters as he traveled overseas that anyone culpable of wrongdoing will be dealt with appropriately. But he's withholding judgment on testimony in Congress suggesting that senior State Department officials were pressured or demoted for objecting to the administration's initial and since-debunked explanations for the attacks.
After an independent Accountability Review Board found systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies in the State Department, four employees in the Near East Affairs and Diplomatic Security sections resigned or were reassigned.
Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died when insurgents attacked the facility in two night-time assaults several hours apart.
Top administration officials first said the attackers were spontaneous protesters, angry about an anti-Islamic video circulating on the Internet. But they later acknowledged the attackers were well-equipped terrorists acting under plans.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Thursday asked President Barack Obama to direct the State Department to release internal emails, sent the day after the Benghazi assault, that deal with the cause for the attacks.
Boehner told reporters that Republican investigators learned that "a senior State Department official emailed her superiors to relay that she had told the Libyan ambassador the attack was conducted by Islamic terrorists." Boehner said the State Department "would not allow our committees to keep copies of this email when it was reviewed."
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., read from the email during Wednesday's committee hearing.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters Thursday the department was following up directly with the House leadership and members about Boehner's request to publicize the emails that the committees saw privately.
Boehner and others have sharply criticized the administration's initial description of the Benghazi attacks by Libyan protesters, rather than a planned terrorist assault. Five days after the attack, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday talk shows and cited the protests, statements that have been widely discredited.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper told a Senate panel earlier this year that the criticism was unfair because Rice was "going on what we were giving her." Officials in the intelligence community have said they were responsible for substantive changes in the talking points provided to Rice.
Boehner pointed out that an interim report by Republicans on five House committees suggests otherwise.
"Our committees' interim report quotes specific emails where the White House and State Department insist on removing all references to a terrorist attack to protect the State Department from criticism for providing inadequate security," Boehner said at his weekly news conference in the Capitol. While a few House members "were able to review these emails, they were not allowed to keep them or share them with others," the speaker said.
"Congress will continue to investigate this issue, using all of the resources at our disposal," Boehner said.
The White House dismissed Boehner's call for the document release, with spokesman Eric Schultz saying the administration has cooperated sufficiently with Congress.
"This administration has made extraordinary efforts to work with the five congressional committees investigating the Benghazi attacks - including, over the past eight months, testifying in what is now 11 congressional hearings, holding 20 staff briefings, and providing over 25,000 pages of documents," Schultz said.
Ventrell said part of an email that Gowdy read have been entered into the record incorrectly, so the department was working with the House to correct the record. The department's concern was over the use of the word "terrorist," he said.
Three State Department witnesses, including Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission who was in Tripoli, recounted the chaotic events during the deadly assault. But Ventrell said they had not revealed new information. He also said they wouldn't face retaliation for going public.
"We don't believe that new information was necessarily presented that hadn't been already either entered into the public record through congressional testimony or investigated by the ARB or otherwise looked at," Ventrell said, referring to the review conducted by former top diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"The department has not and will not retaliate against Mr. Hicks," Ventrell said.
Hicks had told the committee on Wednesday that he had been essentially demoted.