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Kerry clears four State Dept. employees put on Benghazi-related leave

Susan Walsh / AP file

Secretary of State John Kerry.

Secretary of State John Kerry has cleared four State Department employees who were put on administrative leave last December by Hillary Clinton after the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, a senior department official said Tuesday.

Following a review of the Accountability Review Board – the body established following the Sept. 11, 2012 attack against a diplomatic outpost, which left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead – Kerry reassigned four employees criticized by the ARB to different roles within the State Department.

“As soon as he came in to the department, Secretary Kerry wanted to invest the time to review the ARB’s findings and match those against his own on-the-job findings about security,” a Senior State Department official said in a statement. “As part of this process, he asked his senior team to complete a thorough review of the independent Benghazi Accountability Review Board’s findings, and after consideration he reaffirmed its findings that no employee breached their duty or should be fired but rather that some should be reassigned."

The official added: “He studied their careers and studied the facts. In order to implement the ARB and to continue to turn the page and shift the paradigm inside the department, the four employees who were put on administrative leave last December pending further review, will be reassigned inside the State Department.”

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January that the four State Department officials who were criticized in the ARB report had been placed on administrative leave.

“The ARB [report] made very clear that the level of responsibility for the failures that they outlined was set at the assistant secretary level and below,” Clinton told the Senate committee at the time.

The Benghazi incident became a political flashpoint during the height of the 2012 presidential election, and Republicans have generally asserted that President Barack Obama and his national security team have never been forthcoming about the details of the attack due to political sensitivities.

"Instead of accountability, the State Department offered a charade that included false reports of firings and resignations and now ends in a game of musical chairs where no one misses a single day on the State Department payroll," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel who has spearheaded Benghazi investigations. "It is now clear that the personnel actions taken by the Department in response to the Benghazi terrorist attacks was more of a public relations strategy than a measured response to a failure in leadership."

Issa further promised his committe would "expand its investigation" into the ARB and Kerry.

And though dozens of hearings and subpoenas issued by committees in the Republican-held House of Representatives have produced little hard evidence of a cover-up, GOP lawmakers have continued to push Benghazi as a political issue.

“There’s nothing phony about these scandals, Mr. President,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at his Aug. 1 press conference, referring to both the Benghazi incident and a separate controversy involving the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. “Not when four Americans are dead … We’re going to continue to fight for the truth, no matter how badly the administration wants to sweep these issues under the carpet.”

Undergirding Republicans’ continued pursuit of Benghazi as an issue is its potential ramifications for Hillary Clinton, should she choose to run for president in 2016. Looking toward that election, the GOP is eager to use the Benghazi incident as a cudgel versus Clinton, who was secretary of state when the attack took place.

NBC News’ Michael O'Brien and Tom Curry contributed to this report.