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Issa and Pickering clash over new Benghazi hearing

Issa and Pickering clash over new Benghazi hearing

In the battle to shape the American public’s perception of what happened in Benghazi, logistics is everything. On Wednesday, the two emerging rivals in this struggle, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and retired Amb. Thomas Pickering, co-chair of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) for the incident, clashed over the appropriate venue to discuss the U.S. government’s response to last September’s terrorist attack.

On Sunday, Issa announced his invitation to hear Pickering’s sworn testimony in a private "deposition" to be followed by a public hearing. On Tuesday, Pickering sent a letter to Issa that essentially said thanks but no thanks — I’d prefer a public hearing only.

In an interview with The Cable Wednesday morning, Pickering said he opposed a private deposition for two reasons not mentioned in his Tuesday letter. First, he made no bones about his view that Issa is turning the Benghazi tragedy into a "political circus." And, "now that the circus has been launched, we want to make our case in front of the public," Pickering said, referring to himself and retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the other ARB co-chair.

Second, Pickering found the entire idea of a deposition to be inappropriate given his role in reviewing the investigation. "Depositions are usually reserved for fact witnesses and people under investigation," he said. "We are not fact witnesses to Benghazi and we are not under investigation, at least not yet," he said, laughing, in a nod to Issa’s aggressive appetite for Oversight Committee probes. Additionally, depositions are held "in a dark room with investigative personnel and no opportunity to have your voice heard," he said, "while everyone else already got their voice heard."

But Issa spokesman Frederick Hill tells The Cable the ambassador has nothing to worry about. "The committee’s request to Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen is for them to voluntarily appear for transcribed interviews prior to a public hearing just as former Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks did," Hill said. "The committee has requested an answer by 5 p.m. today." Because Pickering never expressly refused a deposition in his Tuesday letter, Issa sent another letter this morning repeating his request for a private, transcribed interview.

"I appreciate your willingness to testify publicly," writes Issa. "However, your response failed to indicate your willingness to appear for a transcribed interview."

Why is Issa so intent on a private meeting? "Your transcribed testimony will allow Members of the Committee to ask informed questions during a subsequent hearing," Issa writes. A transcribed interview would also help Issa arrange the subsequent public hearing as he sees fit, and take away some of the spontaneity involved in the back-and-forth questioning.

The battle over the hearing’s format comes as Pickering and Mullen’s ARB report takes increasing fire from Republicans for failing to focus on higher-ranking State Department personnel, including the secretary of state at the time, Hillary Clinton. During last Wednesday’s hearing, Hicks, the No. 2 diplomat in Libya during the assault, said the ARB had "let people off the hook," and another witness said it failed to interview "people who I personally know were involved in key decisions."

On Meet the Press  Sunday, David Gregory picked up this line of argument, asking Pickering, "Did you not pay sufficient attention to — and time with the secretary of state?"

"I believe we did," responded Pickering. "We had a session with the secretary. It took place very near the end of the report. It took place when we had preliminary judgments about who made the decisions, where they were made, and by whom they were reviewed. We felt that that was more than sufficient for the preponderance of evidence that we had collected to make our decisions and you know that our decisions was two of those people should be separated from their jobs. Two others failed in their performance."

Whether or not Issa and Pickering can settle their differences and schedule a hearing together is yet to be seen. Read their dueling letters here and here.