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Dec 17, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard

WASHINGTON — A high-level State Department investigative panel turned over a secret report Monday assessing blame for the deadly terrorist attacks against the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, setting the stage for a clash on the issue this week between the Obama administration and Republican critics.

The five-member Accountability Review Board delivered the report to the State Department two days before congressional panels are to hear testimony from its leading members, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen, in closed session.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee will take public testimony Thursday from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s two deputies, William J. Burns and Thomas Nides, for the administration’s response to the report and its suggestions on how to strengthen security in the region.

Key Republican lawmakers believe that during the presidential campaign, the administration played down security shortcomings that enabled Islamic militants to successfully attack the lightly defended compound. They have vowed to press hard to get a full picture of the events.

The 1968 legislation authorizing such boards directs them to assign specific responsibility for any security shortcomings, and the report could contain criticism for officials all the way to the top of the department, according to former officials who have been involved in such inquiries.

Clinton was expected to testify this week, but asked, over the weekend, to be excused because of a minor concussion she suffered early last week. The secretary, battling a stomach virus, fainted and struck her head, aides disclosed Saturday.

Clinton sent a letter to the committees Monday saying she was willing to “engage them in January” on the issue and will be “open to whatever they consider appropriate in that regard,” said Victoria Nuland, a department spokeswoman.

The board’s report has classified and unclassified sections. The State Department will release the unclassified section, probably on Wednesday.