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.
From Jim Sciutto traveling with Secretary Kerry in Geneva
As Secretary Kerry and his team land in Geneva, I get a clear sense of them heading into these crucial talks with the Russians with a healthy dose of skepticism. As one official said to me, this is a test of whether the Russians and more importantly the Syrians are serious. Both sides are bringing their experts on chemical weapons, security, and more – all to assess whether there is a credible way forward to catalogue, collect and destroy Assad's massive arsenal of chemical weapons. These next 48 hours will determine if there is a diplomatic way out of this.
"We can test whether there is a credible and authentic way forward here – that the Russians mean what they say – as importantly, more importantly probably, that Assad means what he says and that we can move forward with a program that is verifiable, that can happen expeditiously and that Assad cannot have access to and continue to use chemical weapons against his own people," a senior administration official told me aboard the plane as we flew to Geneva.
Administration officials say the intended outcome of the meetings is to get an "outline of what a way forward may look like" which they can then take to Britain, France, China, and others to build support for a resolution at the United Nations Security Council.
By Jamie Crawford
Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Geneva on Thursday for a high-stakes meeting with his Russian counterpart that could conceivably tip the balance on whether the United States strikes Syria militarily over alleged chemical weapons use.
Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the specifics of Moscow's plan that would put Syria's chemical stockpiles under international control, described as a difficult but momentous step that would nullify the threat of weapons of mass destruction and diffuse the crisis.
In his address to the nation on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said he was willing to test the seriousness and feasibility of the proposal before resuming his push for a vote in Congress on whether to authorize force to punish the Syrian regime over an alleged poison gas attack last month the United States says killed more than 1,400 people.
Kerry will take the lead in dealing with the Russians, Obama said.FULL STORY
By Jamie Crawford
Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday acknowledged concerns by some in the moderate Syrian opposition that limited U.S. military assistance had not reached them as fast as they had wanted, but he said that issue has now been resolved for the most part.
"It is accurate to say that some things have not been getting to the opposition as rapidly as one would have hoped," Kerry said during a Google + Hangout discussion. "Part of that was sort of early organizational effort, but then subsequently it took a while for Congress to approve certain components of it and finally it just takes time to start it."
Kerry said he was not able to disclose what specifically has been sent in the form of weapons by the United States to the Syrian opposition.
"A coordinated effort is being made among the many supporters of the moderate opposition to get them the assistance they need," in addition to ongoing non-lethal, medical and humanitarian assistance to the opposition Kerry said.
By Jamie Crawford
Russia urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday to put his nation's chemical weapons stockpile under international control as part of an effort to head off a possible military strike from the United States.
Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said his country would urge Syria to take the action if it would avert a military response from the United States. There was no immediate reaction from the Syrian government.
Lavrov's comments came the same day Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to endorse a similar course of action.
Assad "could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week," Kerry said during a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done obviously."
By CNN's Elise Labott and Steve Almasy
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking Sunday from Paris, where he met with Arab League ministers, said Saudi Arabia has approved international military intervention in Syria.
"They support the strike," Kerry said after meeting with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal.
Saudi Arabia is a diplomatic heavyweight in the Arab world, but hasn't publicly called for an international military reprisal after a reported chemical weapons attack last month by the Syrian military against rebels.
By Elise Labott and Laura Smith-Spark
The European Union called Saturday for a "clear and strong" international response to the Bashar al-Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, but said U.N. inspectors investigating the incident should report their initial findings before any action is taken.
The statement came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to persuade skeptical European allies to join an international coalition on Syria after a Group of 20 summit ended Friday with a stalemate between Washington and Russia.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton read the statement, which she said reflected the position of all EU members, after four hours of talks Saturday between Kerry and EU foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania.
By Elise Labott
Last Thursday night, John Kerry got a call from the White House. He had already spoken out Monday about what he said was “undeniable” evidence Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gassed his people. Now he was being asked to make a speech Friday afternoon laying out the case the United States had against the Assad regime and the importance of taking action to prevent him from doing it again.
In forceful and emotional remarks, drafted overnight by his staff and President Obama’s White House aides, Kerry laid out the U.S. intelligence against Assad and made the case for urgent U.S. action.
“The primary question is really no longer: What do we know,” Kerry said. “The question is: What are we – we collectively – what are we in the world going to do about it?”
His strong and, by most accounts, convincing indictment of Assad sounded so much like a case for imminent U.S. military action against Syria that the world was surprised when Obama hit the pause button the following day. In an address to the nation from the White House Rose Garden, the president explained his decision to seek congressional authorization for military strikes against Syria.
By CNN's Ashley Killough
Blood and hair samples from eastern Damascus, Syria, have "tested positive for signatures of sarin" gas, Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday, arguing that with "each day that goes by, this case is even stronger."
Kerry said on CNN's "State of the Union" that the U.S. obtained the samples "independently" through an "appropriate chain of custody," giving no indication the results came from the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors.
By Jill Dougherty
As Secretary of State John Kerry embraced Israeli Justice Minister Tsipi Livini and warmly shook hands with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat at the State Department on Tuesday there was a deja-vu moment.
A flashback to September 1993 when President Bill Clinton embraced Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House.
This is just the beginning of a revived peace process that could easily crumble, as Clinton’s Oslo accords did and Kerry admitted: “I know the path is difficult. There is no shortage of passionate skeptics.”
The secretary of state, however, did succeed in getting two representatives together at the State Department to work out details of where this new push for peace is headed.