The two leaders of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) that investigated Benghazi strongly defended their probe amid a Republican report questioning their independence and findings. Co-chairs Thomas Pickering and Mike Mullen testified before the House Oversight Committee Thursday.
The ARB report issued last year faulted four State Department officials for serious lapses that left the U.S. mission in Benghazi poorly secured. Four Americans including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens died in the attacks. Republicans say the ARB report downplayed the role of more senior and more responsible officials, including undersecretary of state Patrick Kennedy. Pickering called the ARB review "free of cover-up and political tilt."
Republicans questioned whether Mullen's communications with Cheryl Mills, the chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, constituted a conflict of interest. Mullen acknowledged giving Mills a "heads-up" after the ARB interviewed State Department security official Charlene Lamb. Mullen told Mills that Lamb would not make a good congressional witness for the State Department.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked Mullen, "If this is so independent, why are you giving the State Department a heads-up about a witness coming in front of this committee?"
Mullen answered, "...I didn't think that Charlene Lamb would be a witness at that point in time that would represent the department well." He added, "the intent was to get the best possible witness, identified for the State Department."
As to whether it was appropriate for him to help the State Department identify a good congressional witness while he's conducting an independent investigation of the State Department, Mullen told Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.: "I was particularly concerned because I had run a major organization, a couple of them, and I'd always worked to provide the best witnesses to represent the organization on the Hill...I was concerned about [Lamb's] level of experience, and I expressed that to Ms. Mills." Mullen testified he doesn't think his actions were inappropriate and that it never impacted his independence.
Mullen also revealed that the ARB provided a draft of the final report to Mills and Clinton and gave them a briefing on it that lasted several hours, prior to releasing it to the public.
Republicans also criticized the ARB's decisions not to record and transcribe interviews with more than 100 witnesses, and not to put them under oath. Mullen and Pickering explained that prior ARBs had not administered the oath, and that they believed witnesses would tell the truth. Pickering testified that "the formal process...of taking a transcription is in some ways inhibiting the kind of information we were soliciting, the kind of views we wanted to get, and the broad and open character of the kind of approach we were taking."
Several Republicans wanted to know why the ARB didn't interview Clinton or her top deputies. Pickering said the top officials weren't involved in Benghazi security decisions.
"If the secretary wasn't involved, I must be on another planet," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who called the report a "whitewash."
Mullen argued that the ARB had "unfettered access" to the State Department personnel and documents, "operated independently" and was "given freedom to pursue the investigation as we deemed necessary."
Another point of disagreement was over the ARB's finding that no outside U.S. military rescue attempt could have been made the night of the attacks because resources weren't at the ready. In an exchange with Mullen, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said "It was Libya after the revolution on 9/11. We had been bombed twice prior. The British Ambassador had the assassination attempt. And nobody is leaning forward-there's nobody that's ready to go?"
"Everybody in the military wanted to move forward," said Mullen. "There were plenty of assets moving. It became a physics problem. And it's a time and distance problem."
"It is an embarrassment to the United States of America that we could not get those assets there in time to help those people," Chaffetz replied. "We didn't even try... We didn't even ask for flight clearances. We didn't even standup the assets that we had in Europe."
Mullen repeatedly said that there's no evidence any stand down orders were given during the attacks. Chaffetz said Mullen erred in relying on military officials who weren't in Libya, instead of interviewing those who were closer to the action.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the ARB review was "one of the most comprehensive ever conducted...the opposite of a whitewash."
Parents of two victims killed in the attacks also testified today. Pat Smith, the mother of information officer Sean Smith, says Obama administration officials have "ignored" her. "It's been pure hell living through all this and not getting any answers," said Smith. She added she often wonders whether bloody fingerprints shown in Benghazi aftermath pictures belong to her son.
Charles Woods, the father of Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, said he's written a letter to the president asking for answers to a series of questions. "Justice delayed is justice denied," said Woods. "It's been over a year. We have very little justice and few truthful answers are being provided." The family of Stevens did not appear but wrote a letter saying they do not wish for Stevens' death to be used as a "political football."
Meantime, Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., todaywho were in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012. The officials are: John Martinec, who was a Regional Security Officer in Tripoli; and Alec Henderson, who was a Regional Security Officer in Benghazi. According to witnesses, the two handled communications during the attacks.