(CBS News) It wasn't "necessary" to question former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, argued Thomas Pickering - part of a two-member team that prepared the Accountability Review Board's report on the State Department's handling of the strike - because her position was "more senior than where we found the decisions were made."
Appearing Sunday on "Face the Nation," Pickering defended the report, which he co-authored with former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, against criticisms from three former and current State Department officials who testified last week before the House Oversight Committee. Greg Hicks - the No. 2 official in Libya at the time of the strike that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans - told the committee he believed the report "let people off the hook."
"They've tried to point a finger at people more senior than where we found the decisions were made," Pickering said, citing specifically Clinton and Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy. Mark Thompson, the deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department's counterterrorism bureau, told the House committee last week that Clinton attempted to cut out the bureau from communications about the attack.
"Legislation setting up our board made it very clear that they didn't want a situation in which a department or agency had accepted responsibility and then nobody looked at where the decisions were made, and how and what way those decisions affected performance on security," Pickering said.
Clinton testified on Benghazi in January before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she took responsibility but conceded there was no "clear picture" of what happened Sept. 11 as the situation unraveled.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., appearing later on the show, said she was "surprised today to hear that they did not probe Secretary Clinton in detail, because obviously she was the decision maker at the State Department." She recalled testimony last week from Hicks and Eric Nordstrom, former regional security officer in Libya, that "facility requirements for the consulate in Benghazi, the waiver of those requirements, by law, apparently, have to come from the secretary of state."
But "this effort to go after Hillary Clinton," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., argued in the same segment, is just an early political maneuver in the 2016 presidential election.
"The reason she wasn't interviewed was, she didn't have any direct-line responsibility for the decisions that were made - but they want to bring her in because they think it's a good political show," Durbin said. "When the Washington Post looked at the assertion as to whether Hillary Clinton should be held responsible and what came out at the hearing, they awarded it four Pinocchios, which means the lowest level of credibility that you can possibly have. It is unsubstantiated, and yet, the witch hunt continues."
Ayotte continued the GOP's vow to further investigations about the Benghazi "cover-up," fronted by the administration's bungled talking points in the aftermath of the attack, which initially peddled the theory that the strike was not a premeditated act of terror. Pickering said he and Mullen did not review the lineage of the talking points, because their report had to do exclusively "with the adequacy of security, with the preparation of security, with intelligence and whether anyone breached their duties."
Any hearings going forward, Durbin said, should include Pickering, who did not testify last week. Fuelling Republicans' "cover-up" narrative, investigators reported that Pickering said he was "deeply disinclined" to participate - but, the ambassador clarified, "that was after several conversations."
"I was invited on a specific date and I was out of the country," he said. "Another asked me whether I would come down and talk informally with the committee. And I said, yes I was positive.
"The day before the committee hearings last week, I said, through the White House - and they transmitted it to the committee - that I was fully prepared to come at any time, and deal with the accountability review board and the issues, or any issues that might arise surrounding that; I am still ready to do that," he continued. "The answer that I received back was, the committee majority, was not inclined to include me on the day of that testimony."