WASHINGTON — The two retired senior U.S. officials who oversaw an internal State Department review of last year’s attacks on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on Thursday rejected as “an inappropriate precondition” a Republican request that they submit to a closed-door interview before testifying in public.
The letter from former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen added new tension to the battle between Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration over the assaults last Sept. 11 on a diplomatic mission and a CIA complex that killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The latest development came as Democrats on Capitol Hill praised the White House for releasing 100 pages of documents that they asserted put to rest Republican charges that the administration had tried to cover up a bungled response to the attack to protect President Barack Obama’s bid for re-election.
“I think that on the talking points, the president’s right: That piece of it is a sideshow,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., repeating a description that Obama had used earlier in the week. “It’s an evasion of what we really need to do. We need to pass a budget that fully protects to the extent that we can our diplomats abroad.”
At the White House, the president called on Congress to “support and fully fund” the administration’s budget request to improve security at U.S. diplomatic posts worldwide.
Speaking at a Rose Garden news conference with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama said he was intent on ensuring that another Benghazi didn’t occur and that the administration was following the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board that Pickering and Mullen led.
Responding to criticism that U.S. military units and aircraft weren’t positioned to reach Benghazi in time to save Stevens and the other three Americans, Obama said he had directed the Defense Department “to ensure that our military can respond lightning-quick in times of crisis.”
Despite the White House document release, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told a news conference that an investigation by five GOP-run committees into the attacks and the administration’s response would forge ahead, contending that the White House has more to disclose.
“We have a job to get to the truth. And the administration can make this a lot easier by doing what they did yesterday: turning over emails from Benghazi,” Boehner said.
The emails and other documents released Wednesday showed that sweeping changes to talking points written for Congress that described what happened in Benghazi were made by the CIA, not the White House. It was the CIA, they indicated, that wrote that the assault stemmed from a spontaneous protest outside the consulate, although numerous U.S. officials knew at the time that it was a planned operation by Islamist extremists, some linked to al-Qaida.
A protest never took place, and the CIA has yet to explain how it reached its preliminary assessment.
Obama, other Democrats and U.S. intelligence officials have defended the assessment, saying it was the CIA’s best judgment given what it knew at the time. The assessment was among the talking points that were given to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for use on five Sunday talk shows.
The president and other Democrats accuse the Republicans of exploiting the deaths of the four Americans for political purposes, including trying to unjustly discredit then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the early front-runner in either party in the 2016 presidential election.
The investigation is being spearheaded by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who asked Pickering and Mullen earlier this week to submit to a closed-door transcribed interview about the Accountability Review Board before a public hearing.
Issa and other Republican panel members have raised questions about the integrity of the board’s final report, citing testimony by three State Department officials at a hearing last week that the inquiry was incomplete because it failed to hold senior leaders accountable for the consulate’s inadequate security.
The three also said the board should have interviewed some officials who weren’t asked to testify, and some lawmakers have questioned why Pickering and Mullen decided not to formally interview Clinton.
Pickering and Mullen wrote to Issa on Thursday to say they want to testify on the inquiry in public – they suggested the dates of May 28 or June 3 – but that they considered the request for an advance private interview “highly unusual” because they weren’t witnesses to the attack.
“In our view, requiring such a closed-door proceeding before we testify publicly is an inappropriate precondition,” they wrote. “Moreover, notwithstanding what your understanding may be, Ambassador Pickering did not agree to such a closed-door proceeding; his sole focus has been on testifying in an open hearing. If you and he were talking past each other that is unfortunate.”
There was no immediate response from Issa.
Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department communications specialist, died when dozens of armed Islamist militants stormed the poorly guarded diplomatic compound and set fire to the building they were in. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, former Navy SEALs who were working as contract security guards for the CIA, died hours later when attackers fired mortars at the CIA annex to which the survivors of the consulate assault had fled. The annex was about a mile from the compound.
The Accountability Review Board’s report was scathing in its criticism of the State Department leadership, saying it had failed to provide sufficient security to U.S. facilities in Libya despite requests from Stevens and others for more protection as crime and Islamist violence rose in the wake of the U.S.-backed revolution that toppled the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011.
The unclassified version of the report, however, didn’t identify any culpable officials, although Clinton publicly took responsibility.
In their letter to Issa, Pickering and Mullen defended their effort as “perhaps the most transparent accountability review board ever. It is only the second to have its full report provided to the Congress.”