Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering says he’s open to new revelations, but sticks to his notions of accountability.
The House Select Committee on Benghazi on Friday published a list of 20 high-profile witnesses it plans to interview before April, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
But the committee itself remains divided along partisan lines over procedures for identifying and interviewing the witnesses. And at least one person on the list—former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who co-chaired the State Department’s Accountability Review Board probing the 2012 deaths of four Americans in Libya—describes himself as open-minded but so far unimpressed that the controversial committee has come up with anything new.
In an interview with Government Executive, the award-winning Pickering, who now consults for Hills and Co., said, “I don’t have reason to believe from what I know that there is unplowed territory, but that has to be put against the caveat that we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Pickering said he recently re-read the House Intelligence Committee’s report on Benghazi released in December, and agreed with it, finding “nothing inconsistent, new or revelatory” compared with the report he helped prepare for release in December 2012. (The Intelligence panel report found no overall intelligence failure, said the CIA had properly helped assure security for the American compound in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed and concluded there was no evidence that witnesses to the Benghazi episode were later intimidated from speaking to Congress. But that report, led by Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., did find flaws in the Obama administration’s immediate public explanations of who had attacked the U.S. property and why.)
The report Pickering prepared with retired Adm. Mike Mullen and others at the request of the State Department has been called “not objective” by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the former prosecutor now chairing the House Benghazi panel. Gowdy said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed that review board and was not herself interviewed. (Clinton, now a likely presidential candidate, has agreed to appear before Gowdy’s committee.)
“For our study, we did the best job we could with the material we had,” said Pickering, who was interviewed last September by Gowdy’s staff. “But we always said that in the future if new material was produced, we’d be first to join in saying it should be factored in.”
The review board had subpoena rights, Pickering added, “and we believed that both the Intelligence Community and State would give us all the relevant documents. We saw most, but not all, of the witnesses who took part,” though saw only one witness from the CIA—who was chief on the operation, Pickering said, “which we assumed sufficient.”
The Accountability Review Board made the decision, Pickering said, “consistent with legislation from Congress back in the 1990s, that it is not sufficient for a senior official to take responsibility for a problem if they didn’t make the substantive decisions, purely on the basis of what happened on their watch or in their bailiwick.” It was the responsibility of the review board, he added, “to go into depth to find out who made the final decisions, and we added the facts about who were their supervisors.”
Pickering said he identified with complaints from committee Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and other Democrats that the committee—formed after a resolution by the Republican-controlled House—seems to “want to start over and drag things out in hopes of bringing out something new,” Pickering said. “I haven’t seen any new information that required bringing up again.”
Gowdy, in gaveling open a hearing on Jan. 27 that focused mostly on alleged delays by the State Department in producing witnesses and documents, said, “I have zero interest in prolonging the work of this committee, but I also have zero interest in producing a product that’s incomplete.” The operative word, Goody continued, is “all—all witnesses and all relevant documents so we have a comprehensive report to produce a definitive record so the American people can understand this tragedy,” he said.
Though he complained about the pace with which agencies were producing documents, Gowdy said his recent demands had produced documents with fewer redactions and 15,000 documents Congress had not previously seen.
Cummings, however, complained that Republicans were “politicizing this terrible tragedy. Rather than blaming federal agencies, we should acknowledge the committee’s own actions, waiting six months before asking” for the first documents, he said. What’s more, Republicans have interviewed at least five witnesses “without even notifying us,” Cummings said. Those witnesses later told Democratic staff “a different story with key facts that undermine the allegations this committee is investigating,” Cummings said.
Democrats on the panel have set up a website that they say provides answers to all the questions on the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack that Gowdy and other Republicans say still need to be examined.