The Cable

GOP Renews War With Obama Over Benghazi

The release of new White House e-mails related to the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi has rejuvenated Republican efforts to investigate and condemn the Obama administration's handling of the deadly incident -- a saga that is now likely to play out for at least the next few months, and could linger as an issue in the 2016 presidential elections.

On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner scheduled a vote to establish a select committee dedicated to investigating the Benghazi attack, a move conservative Republicans had urged Boehner to make for more than year. It came just hours after Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, took the unprecedented step of issuing a subpoena designed to compel Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before his panel on May 21.

The aggressive moves will force the Obama administration to dedicate more time to answering questions about Benghazi it insists have already been answered. But they will also test Boehner's ability to keep his party united behind an investigation that treads on the turf of powerful Republican chairmen in the committees that oversee the military, intelligence community and the State Department.

"There's a danger in pushing this and overdoing it," Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview. "It reinforces the idea that House Republicans only do two things: pass bills to repeal Obamacare and investigate Benghazi."

Many in the party disagree with that notion and the idea that Benghazi isn't worth investigating 19 months after the attack. They point to some 40 recently disclosed e-mails that show a White House official advising Susan Rice, then the ambassador to the United Nations, on what to say during Sunday talk show interviews three days after the attack occurred.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Obama administration attributed the attacks in Libya to an anti-Muslim video that inspired many protests across the Muslim world. Republicans have long insisted, without definitive proof, that the administration blamed the anti-Muslim video to deflect criticisms of its broader policies during a heated election year. Giving ammunition to that view, the e-mails released this week show White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes stressing the need to emphasize "that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy failure."

Boehner said those e-mails should've never been hidden from Congress -- an act the amounts to a "flagrant violation of trust and undermines the basic principles of oversight."

"The House will vote to establish a new select committee to investigate the attack, provide the necessary accountability, and ensure justice is finally served," Boehner said Friday.

White House press secretary Jay Carney insists that Republicans are misinterpreting the e-mails. He says they weren't explicitly addressing the Benghazi attack but the overall environment of protests erupting across the Muslim world in response to the amateurish video mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

In any event,  Boehner and Issa's combined actions guarantee a drawn out battle over Benghazi into the summer that could extend into the November elections and beyond -- a fact that won't upset Republicans looking to highlight a scandal involving Hillary Clinton's tenure at the State Department.

But Republicans are not as united on the proper way of investigating Benghazi as some might believe. Although Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) succeeded in gathering an impressive 190 cosponsors for his bill to establish a select committee, some notable names are missing from the list: Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

For over a year, a number of GOP investigators on the relevant committees have privately opposed the idea of a select committee, which would duplicate their efforts and lessen the impact of their investigations overall. That's why it probably wasn't a coincidence that Issa's subpoena announcement came just hours before Boehner's committee announcement.

"That Issa would preempt the special committee tells you something about him," said Ornstein. "He's pretty aggressively protecting his own turn and he's clearly not in sync with his own leadership."

Issa, however, avoided the outward appearance of opposing the establishment of a rival committee. He has never signed his name onto Wolf's bill, but he issued a statement Friday praising Boehner's move.

"I support Speaker Boehner's decision and will work to share the insight we have learned at the Oversight Committee" he said.

In the same breath, he emphasized the continued relevance of his own committee and investigatory efforts.  "The Oversight Committee still expects Secretary Kerry to appear subject to subpoena on May 21," he said.

The State Department, meanwhile, is furious about the subpoena. Not only did Issa not previously request an interview or written testimony by Kerry, but the request does not take into effect Kerry's busy travel schedule during a time of tumult around the world, they say.

"He's scheduled to be in Mexico on the 21st, which is the date that [the committee] has asked him to testify," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf at the daily press briefing. "We are surprised that in the first instance, they resorted to a subpoena given we've been cooperating all along with the committee and did not reach out before they did so." 

She declined to say if the secretary would comply with the request. "We were surprised about this ... given that we've been cooperating," she said. "And we'll see where we go from here."

Getty Images

The Cable

The U.S. Helped Create South Sudan. Can Washington Save It From Civil War?

This story has been updated.

The Obama administration is diving headlong into the deepening crisis in South Sudan to try to find a way of salvaging the future of Africa's youngest nation -- a country Washington helped create but that now stands on the brink of famine and possible genocide.

The country's deterioration began in December 2013, when South Sudan's former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, took up arms against President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, in a bloody power struggle that has riven the country along ethnic lines.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry landed in the South Sudan's capital of Juba, where he announced that he had secured a commitment from Kiir to participate in talks with Machar in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as early as next week.  Following a closed door meeting with the South Sudanese, Kerry said that Kiir had pledged to begin talks on a transitional government, and to implement a previously ignored cease fire agreement.

The remarks followed a Thursday meeting Kerry held with African foreign ministers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, aimed at restarting peace talks between the warring leaders. Following the meeting, Kerry placed Washington's imprimatur on an East African peacekeeping initiative that could result in thousands of Burundian, Ethiopian, and Kenyan troops being deployed to South Sudan.Before his arrival, Kerry told South Sudan's warring leaders that the United States and its allies were "actively considering sanctions against those who commit human rights abuses and obstruct humanitarian assistance" and plans to seek United Nations Security Council approval for a revamped peacekeeping mission. Kerry said today that he believed some 2,500 peacekeepers could be dispatched to South Sudan in the coming weeks, and that Washington would press for the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing their deployment "We do need to secure an additional United Nations Security Council mandate," he said, according to the New York Times. "I hope it can be done quickly."

The crisis presents a critical test of Washington's influence over a country that has depended heavily on American support for its very survival but now appears increasingly unresponsive to U.S. calls for restraint. It's far from clear whether the South Sudanese government will allow well-armed peacekeepers into its country.

For the time being, South Sudan's people are relying on a beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission that is being treated as an enemy by the very government that the U.S. and U.N. helped shepherd into power. A U.S.-led Security Council initiative in December to reinforce the 7,700-strong mission with 5,500 additional blue helmets has stalled, with only a third of the new troops materializing. The U.N. has opened its compounds throughout South Sudan to tens of thousands of terrified civilians seeking refuge from armed groups, but the world body has struggled to protect them from attack. The situation is so precarious that even the U.N. mission's leadership, including special representative Hilde Johnson, have been forced to move from their residences into an armed U.N. compound in Juba.

Asked if South Sudan was teetering on the verge of genocide, Kerry said Thursday "there are very disturbing leading indicators of the kind of ethnic tribal targeted nationalistic killings taking place that raise serious questions, and were they to continue in the way they have been going could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide. It is our hope that that can be avoided."

Observers say Kerry's diplomatic foray in South Sudan provides a welcome sign that the country hasn't been forgotten despite the high-profile crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. Still, several warned that it may have come too late.

"If we wanted to use U.S. diplomatic leverage and personal diplomacy we should have done it in January, when we stood a better chance of putting the genie back into the bottle, instead of waiting till May," said Cameron Hudson, a former advisor to several U.S. envoys to Sudan who now serves as the acting director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for the Prevention of Genocide. "We could have tried to avoid these really brutal massacres that we are seeing now. I could be wrong but I think the battle lines are so entrenched that just parachuting in there for one day -- I don't see what that is going to change."

Hudson said that the United States still holds more sway over the South Sudanese government than any other country in the world. But he said many of Washington's closest contacts were forced out of government by Kiir during a political purge that helped fuel that latest round of fighting. Kiir is largely surrounded by a coterie of more radical Dinka officials that don't have strong personal relations with American officials.

"We've run out of people to call," Hudson said. "We have been trying to rebuild those relationships, but it's hard to build those relations at the same time you are engaging in punitive diplomacy and threatening sanctions. It's going to be a tough balancing act."

In Washington and New York, American diplomats are developing a plan to revamp the U.N. mission to focus more on ensuring respect for human rights, protecting civilians from attack, and delivering humanitarian assistance. U.S., U.N. and African officials have been converging on a plan to integrate thousands of East African peacekeepers into the existing U.N. mission in South Sudan and to focus their attention more sharply on protecting civilians than on their existing mandate, which seeks to help build South Sudan's national institutions.

But there are many unresolved questions over the mission's new mandate. Would the enlarged mission, for instance, be commanded by a U.N. general or an African officer loyal to African governments? Would the U.S. Congress, which has refused to fully fund U.N. peacekeeping missions, approve hundreds of millions of dollars of additional money? And how deeply involved is the Obama administration -- which is already providing training to East African military planners -- willing to be in supporting the mission?

Senior U.N. peacekeeping officials have urged the United States to consider installing a handpicked American official at the head of the mission when Johnson, whose contract expires this summer, steps down, sending a clear message that any attack on the mission is akin to an attack on the United States. Several names have been floated by U.N. officials, including Jordan Ryan, a top American official at the U.N. Development Program; Gayle Smith, a senior official in the National Security Council; and Tori Holt, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. But the U.S. has not agreed. Some U.N. officials said that Washington seems reluctant to be seen leading the effort.

"Some in D.C. believe it's a good idea and some believe it's not a good idea," said one senior U.N.-based official, noting that many in the United States want to promote African leadership. "The United States believes...that they should be supporting the Africans."

Speaking to reporters Wednesday in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, the U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, delivered an extraordinary rebuke to Kiir and Machar, saying they were neglecting the interests of their people in the pursuit of personal power. She stressed that the country was at risk of widespread famine.

"The deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech, and revenge killings that has developed relentlessly over the past four and a half months seems to be reaching boiling point and I have been increasingly concerned that neither South Sudan's political leaders nor the international community at large seem to perceive quite how dangerous the situation now is," she said. "Unfortunately virtually everything I have seen or heard on this mission has reinforced the view that the country's leaders, instead of seeing their chance to steer their impoverished and war-battered young nation to stability and greater prosperity, have instead embarked on a personal power struggle that has brought their people to the verge of catastrophe."