The battle to get WH Benghazi emails

It took 18 months for Judicial Watch to unearth the emails on Benghazi that led Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Friday to say he’s forming a special committee to look into the issue.

“This material was not voluntarily disclosed,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told The Hill during a phone interview.

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The emails have given new life to Republican attacks on Benghazi. They include a key email from White House official Ben Rhodes outlining “goals” for the talk-show appearances of Susan Rice, who was serving as ambassador to the United Nations at the time.

After the emails, Rice appeared on television and linked the attack in Benghazi to protests of an anti-Islamic video that were occurring in the Middle East.

Rhodes said Rice should “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”

Judicial Watch made its request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. It requested talking points and any related communications about the attack that were given to Rice.

The group made that request on Oct. 18, 2012, a little more than a month after the terrorist attack killed four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The State Department acknowledged receipt of the request about a week later, but eight months after that Judicial Watch had not heard whether State would comply with the request, according to court documents.  

That led Judicial Watch to sue State on June 21, 2013, for unlawfully withholding information. A district court then ordered the State Department to turn over 41 documents, which were released to the group on April 18, 2014.

Under FOIA, the government is required to release existing documents unless they are exempt under any of nine major categories that protects things like confidential commercial information or personal identification information, said Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Program at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

McCall said that if an agency is forced to release information via court order, “it basically means that agency shouldn’t have been withholding the information from the beginning.” 

McCall said that most FOIA requesters don't sue, due to lack of resources, and that “often times the agency, knowing that, will take advantage of that.” 

Fitton, the Judicial Watch leader, charges that State’s refusal to hand over the documents to Congress earlier could be an obstruction of congressional investigations. 

Such arguments led Boehner to say Friday he would form a special committee.

He argued that the emails suggested the White House hadn’t been forthcoming with a House subpoena.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced on Friday that he would subpoena Secretary of State John Kerry to testify on the emails. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney said this week that the emails were not turned over to Congress because they were not specifically about Benghazi.  Fitton said those claims were “ludicrous" and possibly a crime. 

“Carney needs to be talking to an attorney and not the press,” he said. 

The next question the group will seek to answer is whether Rhodes was acting on his own in sending out his email.

Fitton said Judicial Watch has multiple FOIA requests on the attack pending, as well as four or five related lawsuits. 

“We’re happy to cooperate with Congress and the Justice Department,” he said.