Royce: Time to Review Administration-Picked Review Board that Found No Benghazi Conspiracy

The Obama administration has leaned on the findings of its handpicked Accountability Review Board for its go-to explanation of all things Benghazi.

Lawmakers still delving into the consulate attack that killed four Americans say it's time to review the ARB.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened the ARB to delve into the Sept. 11 attack, appointing four of the panel's five members while the director of national intelligence named the final member from the intelligence community.

The ARB "examined the terrorist attacks in Benghazi with an eye towards how we can better advance American interests and protect our personnel in an increasingly complex and dangerous world," according to the final report of the board led by former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering. That report found there were no protests the night of the attack, that intelligence services had no warning of the attack, and that "communication, cooperation, and coordination among Washington, Tripoli, and Benghazi functioned collegially at the working - level but were constrained by a lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at the senior levels."

"The Board determined that U.S. personnel on the ground in Benghazi performed with courage and readiness to risk their lives to protect their colleagues, in a near impossible situation," states the report. "The Board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference."

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) today introduced the Accountability Review Board Reform Act of 2013 to increase the independence and transparency of future ARBs. Under the bill, the secretary of State would appoint only two members of the board with the chair of the Council of Inspectors General of Integrity and Efficiency appointing two members, and the director of national intelligence appointing the fifth member.

Currently, an ARB uses State Department staff to assist with the investigation of other State Department employees. Under this bill, ARB staff would come from the Office of Inspector General.

Only the names of those five board members are currently required to be disclosed, but the bill would require that all senior State Department officials taking part in compiling the review would also be named. And whereas the report now goes directly to the secretary of State, Royce's legislation would also require delivery to Congress.

“When then-Secretary of State Clinton testified about the Benghazi attack in January, she repeatedly referred to the ARB findings, calling it an ‘independent’ investigative body. But the fact is, Secretary Clinton convened the ARB  and hand-picked four of its five members," Royce said.

"This ARB failed to assess the roles of so-called 'seventh floor' State Department officials in the decisions that led to the Benghazi mission’s severely compromised security posture, despite strong evidence suggesting these senior officials were involved. This legislation will ensure that future ARBs are, in fact, independent of State Department leadership."

The bill comes in a week where Benghazi is back on the Capitol Hill radar after a post-election lull.

Five House committees released a joint Interim Progress Report on the attack, which found that in the days after Sept. 11 White House and senior State Department officials altered accurate talking points drafted by the Intelligence Community -- "in order to cover up the State Department’s responsibility for this disaster," said Royce.

"The report highlights that the administration continuously denied requests for additional security prior to the attacks, then attempted to hide responsibility for those decisions," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).

The chairmen of the committees involved -- Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Oversight and Government Reform, and Judiciary -- sent a letter to President Obama on Tuesday requesting that an April 19, 2012, cable be made public on which Clinton's signature accompanies an acknowledgment of a request for extra security even though she then withdrew security assets.

"Further, given the oversight obligations of each Committee investigating these events, we request that you immediately provide the emails and all versions of the talking points" to each of the five committees, the letter continued.

"Finally, we ask that all documents and communications previously provided for in camera review be immediately turned over to the our Committees. Access to this information cannot be dictated by the political interests of the Executive Branch."

Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) also announced that Benghazi hearings would return next month featuring information brought forward to his panel by unnamed administration whistleblowers.

"During the course of the Committee’s investigation, numerous individuals have come forward with information related to the Benghazi attack,” Issa wrote today to Secretary of State John Kerry. “Some witnesses may be required to retain personal counsel to represent them before the Committee and in case the Department retaliates against them for cooperating with the Committee’s investigation. 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."

"In each case, witnesses may need to share sensitive or classified information with their lawyers," Issa continued. "The Department’s unwillingness to make the process for clearing an attorney more transparent appears to be an effort to interfere with the rights of employees to furnish information to Congress.”

Yesterday, Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to turn over the unredacted version of events from the Pentagon point of view that night to his committee.

“The committee has requested this timeline from The Joint Staff. However, The Joint Staff has indicated that there would be delay in delivery of this timeline due to a requirement to coordinate it within the interagency," he wrote in the letter to Hagel.

McKeon stressed that the confidential DoD document is “critical to ensuring that the committee has a comprehensive understanding of the events that transpired” that day when four Americans were killed.

When a reporter told White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday that he wanted to get the spokesman's take on the House report, Carney snarked, "I bet you do."

"It seems to me that if these members of Congress were genuinely interested in getting information, they would not have abandoned the customary oversight process and excluded Democratic members from the entire process, which is what they did," Carney continued.

"...The concerted efforts by Republicans to politicize this have distracted from the real work that’s been done through the ARB to find out what happened and what steps need to be taken to improve the security at our embassy facilities.  That report was very clear and very direct, and went right at the issues of concern."

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the Oversight committee, called on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to basically trash-can the committees' report.

“Speaker Boehner needs to immediately retract this erroneous report, remove it from his webpage, and apologize to Secretary Clinton for mischaracterizing a key document and making false allegations against her in the press," Cummings said. "It was incredibly reckless — or worse — if these public accusations were made knowing that the documents do not support them.”

Cummings said the April 19 cable doesn't bear Clinton's signature but her printed name.

“Although a telephone call could have clarified this issue in a matter of moments, you chose not to check with the Department before making these highly inflammatory and erroneous accusations in a public forum,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Boehner yesterday. “The allegations in your staff report are false, extremely irresponsible, and lack even a rudimentary understanding of how State Department cables are processed.”

House Republicans are plunging forward with their effort.

“The Committee continues its examination of the deadly Benghazi terrorist attacks so we can ensure that the bureaucratic failures that left State Department personnel vulnerable are not repeated," Royce said. "The Committee will continue to review the responsibility of senior State Department officials for the failure to provide proper security prior to the Benghazi attacks; needed improvements in embassy security; and the State Department’s alertness to the overall political climate and resulting terrorist threats in high-risk environments.”