House panel accuses State Dept. of obstructionism in Benghazi investigation

The State Department willfully obstructed a congressional investigation of the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, last year, according to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. 

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State Department officials routinely refused requests for documents on its investigation into the September 2012 attack, including interview transcripts and summaries of eyewitnesses to the attack, according to a committee report obtained by The Hill.

Additionally, members of the independent Accountability Review Board (ARB) tasked with reviewing the events that led up to the Benghazi attack were rife with "actual and perceived conflicts of interest" with State, the committee's report adds.

"The State Department’s refusal to turn over ARB documents has made an independent evaluation of the ARB’s review difficult," according to the report.

To that end, ARB members failed to "record or transcribe the interviews it conducted" and refuses to hand over summaries of the interviews, it adds.

Republicans on the House Oversight panel, led by committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), have accused the ARB of seeking to protect former Secretary of State and possible 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and other top-ranking administration officials.

The attack by Islamic extremists in Benghazi ended with the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

In August, Issa subpoenaed the State Department for documents related to the ARB's investigation.

“State Department tactics to delay and impede accountability have exhausted the Committee’s patience. Further subpoenas may also be necessary if the Department is not forthcoming on other requests," he said at the time.

Witnesses also told House investigators that top State Department officials tasked with selecting ARB members were also involved in managing the department's embassy and consulate security.

ARB staffers "consisted of State Department employees" who later returned to their positions inside the department at the conclusion of the board's investigation.

"Witnesses also testified that, in many instances, board members and staff had prior connections to the officials they evaluated," according to the report.

"The independence of the ARB is tainted by actual and perceived conflicts of interest," the report states.

Congressional investigators also found department leaders wholeheartedly accepted the board's findings, with the White House touting the ARB's findings as the comprehensive account of the Benghazi attack.

That acknowledgement came amid claims by the ARB's co-chairs, retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, that their investigation was compromised by the board's mandate.

Four State Department officials, Eric Boswell, Scott Bultrowicz, Charlene Lamb and Raymond Maxwell, were placed on administrative leave, due to the board's recommendations.

The officials were later reinstated by Secretary of State John Kerry, who replaced Clinton as the administration's top diplomat earlier this year.

The Obama administration initially claimed the Benghazi attack was the result of an anti-American protest. Only weeks later did the Obama administration acknowledge the strike was a planned, coordinated attack by Islamic extremist groups in the country.

— Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

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