In the latest development in the fluid Benghazi investigation, the two retired luminaries who chaired the State Department’s outside review of the government’s handling of the September 2012 attack in Libya reiterated their refusal to comply with a House committee chairman’s demand that they testify behind closed doors.
Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen early Thursday sent a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, saying, “the public deserves to hear your questions and our answers.”
The chairs of the Accountability Review Board, which released its report in December, saw some of their work called into question at a dramatic May 8 hearing where three witnesses labeled “whistleblowers” provided new details about the terrorist attack that took the lives of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Pickering, in an interview with Government Executive, said, “My sense is that Issa wants to hear it in advance and then decide whether to permit us to testify. It’s a little demeaning since we don’t feel we’re objects of the investigation.”
Issa, in a letter sent after the hearing, told Pickering and Mullen that three senior State Department officials who testified “criticized the ARB’s work as ‘incomplete’ and flawed because the ARB did not interview key witnesses and failed to hold senior officials accountable. On May 12, 2013, you defended the ARB’s work on ‘Face the Nation.’ You stated that those criticisms are ‘unfair’ … The White House and the State Department have touted the ARB’s report as the definitive account of how and why the Benghazi attacks occurred. It is necessary for the committee to understand whether the criticisms of the ARB’s work that we heard from witnesses on May 8, 2013, are valid.”
In their May 16 letter, the two chairs of the review board called their temporary body “perhaps the most transparent accountability board ever,” and they called Issa’s request for a private interview “highly unusual in the context of senior officials who are not in fact witnesses.” They agreed to appear at a public hearing on May 28, June 3 or any other day.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, criticized the chairman for changing a previous stance that would permit public testimony. “House Republicans have politicized this investigation from the beginning, and they have recklessly accused Ambassador Pickering and Adm. Mullen of being complicit in a cover-up,” he said in a statement. “It is time for the chairman to honor his commitment to hold a hearing to allow these officials to respond to these reckless accusations, instead of imposing new conditions to keep them from testifying. Members of Congress and the American people should hear directly from these officials -- in public -- and the chairman’s efforts to keep them behind closed doors undermines the committee’s credibility and does a disservice to the truth.”
In the interview, Pickering gave his reactions to the May 8 hearing showcasing lengthy and detailed testimony from Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Libya at the time of the Benghazi attacks; Mark Thompson, a former Marine and now the deputy coordinator for operations in the agency’s Counterterrorism Bureau; and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer and regional security officer in Libya. News accounts and commentators in the runup to the hearing had called the three “whistleblowers” who had previously been silenced.
“We knew in advance who the three witnesses were and what approach they would take,” Pickering said, “but nothing they said was a surprise to us.”
Asked whether any potential witnesses were “silenced,” Pickering said, “Certainly not to my knowledge. Our policy was to hear anyone who asked, which turned out to be more than 100 people, some of whom were obvious and whom we requested, but others who asked to testify.” The State Department, he added, “had put out a general notice to all employees saying if you wish to be interviewed, here’s how to go about it.”
Both Hicks and Nordstrom were interviewed by the review board, and Thompson, Pickering said, had been communicating by email with a senior board staffer but in the end declined to respond to a final message.
What Thompson would have provided were “turf issues,” Pickering said. He characterized Thompson as a “communications person specializing in sorting out confusion” at a time when the high-level officials dealing with the attack -- some of whom were appealing to the Defense Department to send in Marines stationed in Spain -- “needed shooters, not communicators.”
Two questions raised at the May 8 hearing were why the interviewees were not given a chance to review transcripts of their testimony and why a neutral stenographer was not present. Pickering said he heard no requests from witnesses to review their recorded comments, “though we had no policy against letting them see what was recorded.”
The reason there was no stenographer, he said, is that “past boards believed it sufficient to have informed and well-versed note-takers to record salient points. Foreign Service officers learn to do this.”