Benghazi Interview: Pickering Dissects Congressional Follies, Media Coverage and 'Cover-Up' Charges
A Commentary By Joe Conason
No doubt the degraded quality of congressional oversight astonishes Thomas Pickering, the distinguished American diplomat who oversaw the State Department's Benghazi review board -- although he tries not to say so too directly. For his demanding and difficult effort -- only the most recent in a long history of public service under both Republican and Democratic administrations -- Pickering has found himself under sustained attack by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the excitable partisan who chairs the House Government Reform Committee.
Last Friday, Issa subpoenaed Pickering to deliver a taped deposition to the committee behind closed doors, without offering a public chance to answer the charges already lodged by Republicans against the Accountability Review Board report authored by Pickering and retired admiral Mike Mullen.
Immediately prior to this latest skirmish, Pickering spoke with The National Memo about the ARB report, political maneuvering by the administration's adversaries, and media coverage of the Benghazi "scandal." Asked whether he had ever experienced or seen anything resembling Issa's conduct, Pickering said, "No, I haven't. ... I suspect that on this particular issue, this guy (Issa) is driven by whatever will maximize his capability to be tough on the administration. This seems to be one effort he's kind of landed on to make that happen. But I'm only guessing here," he added.
Meanwhile, Pickering hasn't noticed much attention being given on Capitol Hill to the extensive recommendations that he and Mullen made to improve security in dangerous posts around the world. "I can't tell you whether anyone (in Congress) has sat down and examined them and wanted to have hearings on (the recommendations)" -- instead of the notorious "talking points" developed by the White House last September.
"So far I haven't seen any evidence of that."
For Pickering, the subpoena issued by Issa must be especially confusing. Ever since the Government Reform Committee announced its planned hearings on Benghazi last winter, its leadership has repeatedly failed to establish a time when the review board chairman -- perhaps the most important witness -- could testify. Although at first Pickering says he thought they were "genuinely interested" in getting his testimony, he became "increasingly less inclined" to appear before the committee "as the thing became more politicized."
Before the May 8 hearing, he made a final effort to arrange to testify publicly. But via the White House and the State Department, he learned that his presence was not desired. Before Issa issued his subpoena to Pickering on Friday, he and Mullen had sent a letter requesting an opportunity to testify publicly -- and said that they are "not inclined to give testimony in a closed hearing before that (happens)."
Having listened to Issa and others take potshots at him, Mullen, and their report for several weeks, Pickering wants to rebut some of the misinformation they have propagated, for the record. He wants to address claims that the military "could have relieved or in fact changed the situation by sending men or equipment or both the night of the event" -- and specifically assertions by Gregory Hicks, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya, that four Special Forces soldiers should have been dispatched to Benghazi from Tripoli. Pickering says those four officers would have arrived in Benghazi too late to help and were needed in Tripoli anyway to treat the wounded, who were brought there after the Benghazi attack.
"The third question that has come up," said Pickering, "is why we didn't investigate the Secretary of State" and her deputies. The "simple and straightforward answer" is that "they played no role in the decision making which was relevant to the preparations for meeting the security crisis in Benghazi," and the role they did play on the night of Sept. 11 "was fairly clearly portrayed to us by other people who attended the meetings, and we had no questions about it. We thought that what they did made sense and fit exactly what should have been done."
What Pickering may mention, if and when he does testify in public, is the role of Congress, which he considers primarily responsible for underfunding the protection of diplomatic posts abroad. Fortunately, legislative idiocy has not prevented the redirection of almost $1.5 billion in funds to improve security in dozens of posts, both physically and with additional security officers and Marine guards.
Aside from the weak oversight of Congress, Pickering also seems critical of the media coverage of Benghazi. In preparing to chair the Accountability Review Board, Pickering said, he "asked for, received and read all of the press reporting that the State Department could find and put together for me, covering the events in Benghazi and the aftermath, from the initial attack right through to the day we submitted our report."
He undertook this required reading because "I thought there would be useful ideas, leads, analyses that had to be taken into account. What I found in general was a very significant amount of wild, and I think fictionalized, made-up kind of information.
"And in effect much of this alleged a kind of betrayal of those people, in one way or another, all of which I thought bordered on Pulitzer Prize creative fiction but didn't bear any relationship to what we were able to determine, both from the documentary evidence, from the extensive film footage that we had an opportunity to review carefully, and of course the interviews we had with people who were on the spot." Indeed, Pickering believes that the ARB report is "the best compilation I've seen of what actually took place."
Pickering won't comment on the "talking points" controversy, which wasn't relevant to the ARB investigation. But he resents broader allegations by the Republicans and their allies in the media -- in particular "the allegation that I would be engaged in a cover-up. ... I hope people feel that I'm a more honest and hopefully more dedicated public servant than that. "
"Our interest was to do everything we could to find out what happened," Pickering said, "and then on the basis of that [investigation] to make as clear recommendations as we could to help the State Department and other agencies so that it wouldn't happen again.
That was our motive, that was the driver, and that's where we went. Any effort to cover up would have been a betrayal. ... We did everything we could in terms of the national interest in saving future lives." He believes it is vital to defend the credibility of the report and prevent it from being undermined. "That's why I'm interested in talking to the American public now, because I think the report is a good report. And so far I haven't heard anything that I believe we didn't consider carefully."
As for his critics, "I would hope they would read the report. If they have, maybe they need to read it again." He laughed. "Both Mike Mullen and I believe that it's important that we have this opportunity, either through Chairman Issa or some other committee, to deal with the people who have concerns about the report and tell them how we were thinking and why we reached the conclusions we did."
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