The House Oversight Committee on Friday issued a subpoena to force Secretary of State John Kerry to testify on new Benghazi emails.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he is requiring Kerry to testify on May 21 at a public hearing.
"The State Department's response to the congressional investigation of the Benghazi attack has shown a disturbing disregard for the Department's legal obligations to Congress," Issa said in a letter to Kerry.
This week the group Judicial Watch released an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that shows White House official Ben Rhodes coordinating talking points for then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice before her Sunday talk show appearances the weekend after the attack in Libya.
In the email, Rhodes said Rice should “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”
Issa expressed outrage that the Rhodes email exchange was not handed over to Congress under a previous subpoena.
“Compliance with a subpoena for documents is not a game. Because your Department is failing to meet its legal obligations, 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.
State Department spokesman Marie Harf expressed surprise at the subpoena and said Issa was playing politics.
“We are surprised that in the first instance that they resorted to a subpoena given that we have been cooperating all along with the committee and they did not reach out before they did so,” she said. “It is highly unusual to issue a subpoena before even an official invitation for testimony. I think that everyone can make their own judgments about that.”
Harf said that Kerry is slated to be in Mexico on May 21 and the department is reviewing the subpoena. She said Kerry, who is in Africa, might not yet be aware of the subpoena.
The spokeswoman reiterated the White House view that the email contains “nothing new” and denied State is stonewalling Issa’s committee.
“The notion that we are somehow deliberately doing that is false,” she said.
“Congress was aware that we would be issuing documents on a rolling basis,” she added. “If there are more documents to produce we will do so.”
Republicans have long alleged that the administration falsely blamed the 2012 attack on a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic video to protect President Obama as he ran for reelection. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in he assault, which the administration later said was a coordinated terrorist attack.
Democrats argue that the GOP is trying to turn Benghazi into a scandal in part in order to unfairly tarnish former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is widely seen as the likely Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. The Benghazi attack took place on her watch.
The top Democrat on the Oversight Committee said Issa never bothered to ask Kerry if he would come to talk to the committee before issuing the subpoena.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) also said the subpoena was never put before the committee for a vote.
“These actions are not a responsible approach to congressional oversight, they continue a trend of generating unnecessary conflict for the sake of publicity, and they are shockingly disrespectful to the Secretary of State," Cummings said.
The Issa subpoena came a day after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is recovering from back surgery, demanded that Kerry agree to testify.
"If the White House won’t explain it, Secretary Kerry should come to the Capitol to explain why he defied an official congressional subpoena," Boehner said in a statement. "And the White House needs to understand that this investigation will not end until the entire truth is revealed and justice and accountability are served.”
Kerry didn't take over the Senate to join the State Department until after the attack, but was in charge of the department last year when Congress subpoenaed for the Benghazi documents.
The subpoena caps a tough couple of weeks for Kerry, who has seen his year-long effort to clench a Israeli-Palestinian peace deal crash and burn even as the administration's Russia reset failed to stop President Vladimir Putin from annexing the Crimea area of Ukraine.
Last week, Kerry came under fire for saying Israel risks becoming an "apartheid" state if it does not accept a two-state solution. The comments prompted some conservatives, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), to call for Kerry to resign.