Lawyer up, Issa warns CIA staff

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is pushing ahead with his investigation of last year’s fatal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, by preparing federal agencies to allow employees to lawyer up.

In separate letters to the legal offices of the CIA, State Department and Defense Department, Issa said some witnesses on the issue might need lawyers, if their agencies decide to retaliate against them for their testimony. 

“During the course of the investigation, numerous individuals have approached the committee with information related to the attack,” wrote Issa in the letters, which were obtained by The Hill. 

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He asked agencies to provide details on how to grant outside attorneys the security clearances necessary for them to adequately represent employees discussing classified matters with congressional investigators.

“Some witnesses may be required to retain personal counsel to represent them before the committee and in the event the agency subsequently retaliates against them for cooperating with the committee’s investigation,” he said.

“Additional witnesses may be compelled by subpoena to give testimony to the committee and can be reasonably expected to retain personal counsel at that time.”

The letters are the latest sign that Issa is ramping up his investigation of the Benghazi attack and potential security and managerial failures that led up to it. He initially launched the probe last year, about a month after the attack.

The move comes as more than 100 rank-and-file Republicans have increased their pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to create a 19-member select committee to look into the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.

Since then, 106 lawmakers have signed on to a resolution from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) calling for a select committee. 

Boehner has argued that a select committee would be expensive and time-consuming to create, and has called for standing committees to investigate the matter.

Further involvement by Issa, who has subpoena power on Oversight, could bolster Boehner’s argument. 

Issa also warned the agencies against taking negative action toward any employees that help his panel with its investigation.

“[I]t is important that the agency makes clear to its employees that they are free to furnish information to Congress in accordance with their statutory rights,” wrote Issa.

“Additionally, retaliation against a witness who communicates with the committee can be considered obstruction of a congressional investigation and is punishable by fine and imprisonment.”

In addition to Issa’s Oversight panel, the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Judiciary committees have also probed the 2012 attack. An interim staff report is expected to be released next week in an attempt to allay concerns that the House is not acting quickly enough on the issue. 

As Issa pushes forward with his investigation, it could threaten the bipartisan tone and relationship he has worked to build with the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), since the beginning of the year. 

While Cummings is generally supportive of the probe, many Democrats have voiced concerns that it could carry a political bent. They point to Issa’s first hearing, which was held less than a month before the 2012 presidential election while the House was in pro-forma sessions. Democrats speculated that the special hearing was an attempt to undermine President Obama’s foreign policy credentials — an area that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney struggled to present a successful challenge to.

After the hearing, Cummings balked at the manner in which Issa conducted it.

“l have grave concerns about the way yesterday’s hearing devolved into a disorganized, partisan, and absurd spectacle when it should have been a serious and responsible investigation of the attack in Benghazi,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Issa last October.

— Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.