WASHINGTON - The seasoned diplomat who penned a highly critical report on security at a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, defended his scathing assessment but absolved then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "We knew where the responsibility rested," Thomas Pickering, whose career spans four decades, said Sunday.
"They've tried to point a finger at people more senior than where we found the decisions were made," Pickering said of Clinton's critics.
The Accountability and Review Board, which Pickering headed with retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not question Clinton at length about the attacks but concluded the decisions about the consulate were made well below the secretary's level.
Pickering's defense of his panel's conclusions, however, was unlikely to quiet Republicans' calls for accountability for the attacks that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Pickering and Mullen's report released in December found that "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" of the State Department meant that security was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack."
That, however, has done little to calm Republicans' inquiry.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week heard a riveting minute-by-minute account from a former top diplomat in Libya about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the diplomatic outpost in eastern Libya. Gregory Hicks, a former deputy chief of mission to Libya, detailed his phone conversations from Tripoli with Stevens, who died during the two nighttime attacks.
Hicks and two other State Department witnesses criticized the Pickering and Mullen review. Their complaints centered on a report they consider incomplete, with individuals who weren't interviewed and a focus on the assistant-secretary level and lower.
The hourslong hearing produced no major revelation but renewed interest in the attacks that happened during the lead-up to the November 2012 presidential election.
Meanwhile, the top Republican on the oversight committee wants sworn depositions with Pickering and Mullen. Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), said he would request private testimonies from both on Monday. "We want the facts. We're entitled to the facts. The American people were effectively lied to for a period of about a month," Issa said.
Pickering, sitting next to Issa on one Sunday show, said he wanted to appear at Wednesday's hearing, which Issa led, but was blocked. Issa said Democrats could have invited their own witnesses, such as Pickering, but did not.
In a separate interview, Pickering said he asked, via the White House, to appear at that session. He said he could have answered many of the question lawmakers raised, such as whether U.S. military forces could have saved Americans had they been dispatched to the consulate, 1,600 miles away from the nearest likely launching point. "Mike Mullen . . . made it very clear that his view as a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that there were nothing within range that could have made a difference," Pickering said.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), said Sunday of the administration's reaction to the attack: "I would call it a cover-up in the extent that . . . there was willful removal of information."