Earlier this week, House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa released a scathing critique of the State Department’s investigation into the Benghazi incident. Hours later, the committee quietly released documents that run against a number of claims in Issa’s report, including the idea that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to blame for security failures in Benghazi.
Issa leaked details of his new report on Sunday to select media outlets. The report eviscerated the investigation into last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi led by Admiral Mike Mullen and Ambassador Thomas Pickering, otherwise known as the Accountability Review Board (ARB). Among the congressional report’s key findings: the ARB was not comprehensive; it did not conduct thorough interviews, it was plagued by conflicts of interest; and the board failed to hold senior State Department officials accountable, such as Clinton.
The Issa report tried to pin the blame on Clinton by highlighting interviews with officials at the State Department’s Bureau of Near East Affairs who recall Clinton wanting to continue operating a facility in Benghazi. "Several NEA officials recalled the Secretary’s desire to continue operating the Benghazi mission in September 2011," reads an Issa press release.
Nevermind the fact that those interviews do not pertain to security decisions made by Clinton and are vague in nature — both Mullen and Pickering addressed the issue of Clinton’s culpability at length in the newly-released transcripts from June. "We interviewed everyone that we thought was relevant. And in the end there was no official, including the Secretary of State, whose involvement wasn’t reviewed," Mullen said.
The retired admiral added that it was impossible to peg Clinton to the security failures because she was too far removed from those decisions. "[W]e found no evidence whatsoever that [Secretary Clinton] was involved in security decisions [in Libya]," he said.
Pickering provided a similar answer. When asked if Clinton had a role in "establishing the Benghazi compound or approving its security profile," he testified on June 4 that "She did not have such a role."
Elsewhere, Issa’s report states that the "ARB was not comprehensive," it "may have been affected by conflicts of interest," and the "ARB did not conduct through interviews."
But Mullen disputes these contentions in his June interview, saying the ARB had ample independence. "From my perspective, the most important descriptive characteristic of it is that it would be independent … and had that not been the case, I certainly wouldn’t have agreed to it," he said. "I saw in execution that independence throughout, from beginning to end, that it was supported. We had the authority to, within the scope of the tasking, to do just about anything that we thought was important."
Issa’s report also alleged that Mullen "undermined" the independence of the ARB, citing an inappropriate "heads-up" he gave to State Department Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills ahead of her ARB interview. "Mullen put Cheryl Mills on notice in advance of her interview that the Board’s questions could be ‘difficult’ for the State Department," said the Issa report.
However, the transcript from Mullen’s testimony shows that his communication with Mills had nothing to do with her testimony. Instead, it was about the testimony of deputy assistant secretary Charlene Lamb, who had little experiencing testifying before Congress. "To the best of my knowledge, she [Ms. Lamb] hadn’t appeared either ever, or many times certainly [before Congress]. So essentially I gave Ms. Mills a head’s up that I thought that her [Ms. Lamb’s] appearance could be a very difficult appearance for the State Department, and … that was the extent of the conversation," said Mullen.
Issa spokeswoman Becca Watkins acknowledged to The Cable that the accusation was misdirected in the report, but maintained that it could still be a sign of inappropriate behavior on the part of Mullen. "The episode where ARB co-chair Mullen gave Cheryl Mills a heads up that Charlene Lamb would be a bad congressional witness for the Department is a potent example of the ARB, at its outset, being more focused on helping the Department manage a public relations crisis than it was on objectively examining the culpability of senior officials," she said.
Regardless, this latest PR war between the Republican-controlled Oversight Committee and the State Department has turned an already bad relationship to a downright poisonous one at the staff level.
"On Sunday, the Department was put in the difficult position of being forced to respond to allegations made in a report we didn’t have and based on transcripts we had never seen," a State Department official told The Cable.
Part of the animosity stems from the fact that Issa fought tooth and nail to get Pickering to testify in a private deposition. When Pickering finally agreed to talk, Issa kept it under wraps for months and ignored the substance of Pickering’s testimony.
This, of course, is what Pickering feared all along, which is why he resisted Issa’s deposition invitation in May and offered instead to testify in public before the committee. But Issa balked at the idea and used the threat of subpoena to bring him into a closed door deposition. It was only until Thursday that Pickering and Mullen finally testified in public, much to the relief of the Oversight Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD).
"Republicans forced Admiral Pickering and Ambassador Mullen to submit to closed door depositions and interviews-rather than allowing them to respond at a public hearing-and then sat on those transcripts for months," Cummings told The Cable. "Yesterday, these two respected public servants were finally allowed to address the American people and put these unfounded accusations to rest."
Another reason for the vitriol between State and the committee is Issa’s habit of firing off subpoenas in a hurry. Yesterday, for instance, the committee issued subpoenas for interviews of diplomatic security (DS) personnel — just one of many, many subpoenas in the last year. But in a letter Issa sent to the State Department last week, he said Foggy Bottom would have until next Tuesday to respond. "I must receive confirmation that the Department will make these witnesses available to Committee investigators by September, 24, 2013. Otherwise, I will have no alternative but to consider the use of compulsory process."
To be sure, Issa is under no obligation to parrot the testimony of Pickering or Mullen, and the fact that the two directly contradicted his findings does not mean everything in the report is unfounded. (For what it’s worth, DS officials speaking with The Cable have expressed resentment that State’s Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy has escaped punishment given his role in overseeing diplomatic security.)
However, Issa’s willingness to conceal inconvenient information for months on end and jump ahead of his own subpoena deadlines has created a contentious environment between the committee and Foggy Bottom.
Don’t expect a ceasefire anytime soon.
"Non-substantive complaints by anonymous State Department officials only confirm that they recognize this and other facts included in the Committee’s report as damaging to their distorted portrayal of the ARB’s review," Watkins told The Cable.