By Jamie Crawford
The leader of a review board that investigated the deadly terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, lacked sufficient independence to reach an objective finding of fault, a congressional committee chairman said on Thursday.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa told retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering that he failed to see how the Accountability Review Board could have come to an objective conclusion about the September 2012 attack based on Pickering's long career as a State Department official.
"You talked about 42 years in the organization you were overseeing," Issa said to Pickering, who drew on his diplomatic experience to help him lead the panel.
"If we looked at the bank failures of 2007 and brought Jamie Dimon in to head the board, some might say that there was an inherent conflict because of his experience in life," Issa said of the JPMorgan Chase chairman.
"Mr. chairman, with greatest respect, this was not, quote, a 'gotcha' investigative panel," Pickering replied.
He asked why a group looking for answers would be empaneled without understanding the specific minutiae of how diplomacy is carried out.
"I appreciate that," Issa shot back. "Obviously, this was not a 'gotcha' panel, because nobody was 'gotcha-ed.'"
The exchange between Issa and Pickering illustrated the sharp political emotion that has defined many exchanges over the Benghazi attack by armed militants, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Issa's investigation has been a partisan flashpoint as he has pushed the Obama administration hard to get a better understanding of pre-attack security at the diplomatic outpost and why no one at the State Department lost their jobs after Pickering's investigation noted shortcomings.
Earlier this week, the Republican majority staff of the committee released a report that also raised new questions. It noted the relatively short time it took the review board to investigate the attack and issue its findings, and pointed out that those interviewed by the panel were not made available to members of Congress.
The Democratic minority staff, led by its ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, released its own report just as Thursday's hearing got underway. It questioned the findings of the Republican staff report.
"Based on all of the evidence obtained by this committee, this Benghazi review was one of the most comprehensive ARB reviews ever conducted," Cummings said. "I have seen no evidence, none whatsoever, to support these reckless Republican accusations. To the contrary, witness after witness told the committee that the ARB's work was 'penetrating,' 'specific,' 'critical,' 'very tough,' and the 'opposite of a whitewash.'"
But the fireworks were just getting started as a session that ran more than four hours got underway. It examined numerous areas around how and why certain facets of the review board investigation were undertaken.
Former Joint Chiefs Chairman retired Adm. Michael Mullen, who served as Pickering's co-chair, was effusive in his assertions that there were no orders for any military detachments to "stand down" that had already put in motion to try and arrest the assault on the diplomatic building and a nearby CIA annex.
"This is not something you can just wish to happen instantly. There's a lot of planning, preparation, as rapidly - to do it as rapidly as one can do it," Mullen said in reference to questions of how no U.S. military assets made it to Benghazi that night.
"We are not big enough in the military to be everywhere around the world to respond to where every embassy is that might be high-risk. We have to take risks and figure that out," he said.
Questions emerged from multiple members of the committee as to why the review board did not assign any culpability for management and other shortcomings to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as head of the department.
"We had very clear evidence, full and complete to our information, that the authority - responsibility, the accountability rested with the people we identified," Pickering said in explaining why failures in the State Department structure were centered at the assistant secretary level.
"If the secretary (Clinton) wasn't involved, I must be on another planet," Rep. John Mica said in response.
In interviews with media outlets prior to her stepping down earlier this year, Clinton said she took responsibility for the security of diplomats and diplomatic outposts around the world in her role as secretary.
There have been 18 such review boards since 1986 that have investigated attacks on U.S. facilities overseas.
Many members of the panel questioned Pickering and Mullen as to why certain recommendations from the report that looked into the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa were not carried forward.
"Secretary (Madeleine) Albright as a result of that recommendation, met daily with the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security first thing in the morning. And that established a nexus, a chain, which neither her - I think none of her three successors kept. I think that may have been an error," Pickering said.
"I think that in some ways her interest - and put it this way - in no more Nairobis and no more Dar es Salaams was an important instinct. I think that that was a rather good process, and in some ways I'm sorry it wasn't repeated," he said.
The review board led by Pickering and Mullen made 29 recommendations, one of which was to establish another independent review to identify "best practices" in the public and private sectors in security intelligence, risk management and accountability - all areas where problems were identified at the State Department.
That panel, led by former Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, warned that the State Department did not pay enough attention to the bureau overseeing security for 275 diplomatic posts and called for it to be elevated in its importance to deal with a growing threat.
As a result of the Benghazi attack, the State Department created a new position of deputy assistant secretary of state for high threat posts and has begun to beef up security and improve training.
But Issa contended Thursday that it was the purview of his committee and that of Congress to interview many of the same witnesses who were on the ground in Benghazi that spoke to the review board in order to get an understanding of where accountability for the attack lay.
"I am in the process of issuing subpoenas because the State Department has not made those people available, has played hide and go seek, and is now hiding behind a thinly veiled statement that there's a criminal investigation," he said of the FBI probe.
And in the next sentence, Mr. Issa laid out the roadmap for his committee in the Benghazi investigation.
"That's part of the reason that this investigation cannot end until the State Department gives us at least the same access that they gave your board," he said.
CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.
By Dan Merica
Top Republicans and witnesses ripped the Obama administration's response to last year's deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, calling key executive branch officials unresponsive in the critical hours after the assault and uncooperative in the investigations that followed.
Our goal "is to get answers because their families (of the victims) deserve answers," said California Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which heard from State Department "whistleblowers" at a hearing on Wednesday.
"The administration, however, has not been cooperative and unfortunately our (Democratic House) minority has mostly sat silent," he said.
Issa spoke prior to testimony from Eric Nordstrom, a former regional security officer in Libya; Mark Thompson, the State Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; and Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya.
Follow CNN's live blog of the hearing here.
By CNN's Mary Grace Lucas
A NATO alliance where member nations are hamstrung by political and economic difficulties may be a militarily weakened one, former Secy. of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday night.
"NATO is turning into a two-tiered alliance with shrinking percentage of members willing – and able – to pay the price and bear the burdens of common defense," Clinton said. "Even in these difficult economic times, we cannot afford to let the greatest alliance in history slide into military irrelevance."
Clinton was speaking at an annual Atlantic Council awards dinner in Washington where both she and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen were honored with Distinguished Leadership awards.
Clinton praised Rasmussen roundly for his work. But she didn’t shy away from the idea that NATO nations needed to think ahead about a more evenly-shared responsibility when it comes to security and readiness.
By Jill Dougherty
The president's top diplomat said Friday he wasn't looking "backwards" at the White House quashing of a proposal last summer to arm the Syrian rebels, but was instead looking at what the United States will do regarding helping the opposition.
Last summer President Barack Obama's national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, backed a proposal to provide weapons to Syrian rebels but, U.S. officials told CNN on Thursday, the White House blocked the idea.
That rift was unexpectedly revealed Thursday in testimony on Capitol Hill. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, asked Panetta and Dempsey: "Did you support the recommendation by Secretary of State - then-Secretary of State Clinton and then-head of CIA General Petraeus that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Do you support that?
By Jill Dougherty and Elise Labott
We have one confession to make right off the top: we have never seen Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sleeping. Informed sources say she does sleep and in her visits to 112 countries, logging nearly one million miles in the air during her four years in office, presumably she did catch a wink or two.
But travel with Clinton is a time warp where clocks and watches showing 24 hours seem inadequate to capture a full day with America’s top diplomat.
You’re simply on “Clinton time” and if you want to survive, you must forget Eastern Standard Time, local time or any other time. Just stick with eternal present time and you’ll survive. But bring your vitamins along.
When we interviewed Secretary Clinton in her last week in office, she described it as a “flying circus” and that’s a good a description as we’ve heard. When you are “in the bubble,” as it is called, it’s a maelstrom of diplomatic security officers with earpieces, dogs sniffing for explosives, handlers and motorcades. You will be jet lagged and sleep deprived but so is she.
By Jamie Crawford
As the political turmoil in Egypt continues, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she's concerned about an Egyptian military official's assertion that the current situation could lead to the collapse of the Egyptian state.
"I think that would lead to incredible chaos and violence on a scale that would be devastating for Egypt and the region," Clinton said in a CNN interview Tuesday at the State Department. "There has to be some understanding by the new government that the aspirations that the people were expressing during the revolution in Egypt have to be taken seriously. And it - it cannot in any way be overlooked that there is a large number of Egyptians who are not satisfied with the direction of the economy and the political reform."
Thousands of anti-government protesters have clashed with police and troops in three Egyptian cities, and defied President Mohamed Morsy's curfew orders. Demonstrators are upset with recent political moves by Morsy, and charge that the country's first democratically elected president is a throwback to former dictatorships.
Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt's defense minister, warned Tuesday that continued instability could have grave consequences.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she can't be faulted for not solving some of the thorny diplomatic issues she faced her in term.
In her final week of Secretary of State, Clinton defended her legacy in an exit interview with CNN's Jill Dougherty and Elise Labott.
Clinton acknowledged that her legacy includes unsolved problems in some of the world's hot spots, but noted that she assumed the job four years ago at a time of great uncertainty.
"I think we have to go back to my beginning in January '09 to remember how poorly perceived the United States was, how badly damaged our reputation was, how our leadership was in question, how the economic crisis had really shaken people's confidence in our government, our economic system, our country.
Clinton said she had sought initially simply to restore international confidence in American leadership, "sometimes against pretty tough odds," which included a crisis in the world's economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The challenges went on to include responding to the Arab Spring, forming international coalitions to inflict sanctions on Iran and North Korea and dealing with changes in Burma, Europe, Latin America and Africa. FULL POST
By Elise Labott
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday took on Republican congressional critics of her department's handling of the deadly September terrorist attack in Libya.
Conservative GOP members challenged Clinton on the lack of security at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi as well as the erroneous account that the attack grew spontaneously from a protest over an anti-Islam film produced in the United States.
At two hearings, which together totaled more than five hours, Clinton acknowledged a "systemic breakdown" cited by an independent review of issues leading up to the armed assault and said her department was taking additional steps to increase security at U.S. diplomatic facilities.
Here are five things we learned from the hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees.FULL STORY
By Tim Lister
Much of the focus of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday was on whether her department failed to appreciate and respond to the risks that led to the Benghazi attack - and whether it had the resources to confront such risks.
And, of course, on whether in the immediate aftermath, the administration characterized the attack candidly and accurately.
But the hearings also illustrated how the United States is scrambling to catch up with new realities in North Africa – and how it faces a long struggle in a new arena of instability.
Clinton acknowledged that “the Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region.”
Looking back to her confirmation as secretary of state four years ago, Clinton said, “I don’t think anybody thought [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak would be gone, [Libya’s Moammar] Gadhafi would be gone, [Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali would be gone.”
By Elise Labott
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is sprinting to the finish as America's top diplomat, preparing for a high-profile hearing on the deadly Benghazi attack and two signature opportunities to have the last word on her tenure.
Clinton, who returned to work last week after battling a virus and a blood clot, is aggressively tackling her work load, even as official Washington gets ready to pause for President Barack Obama's second inaugural on Monday.
Sandwiched between the inaugural and Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of Sen. John Kerry to replace her, Clinton will testify before House and Senate committees on Benghazi.
Her appearance on Wednesday was originally scheduled in December, but was postponed as she confronted health issues.