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“Pulitzer Prize Creative Fiction”: Thomas Pickering Dissects Congressional Follies, Media Coverage, And ‘Cover-Up’ Charges

No doubt the degraded quality of congressional oversight astonishes Thomas Pickering, the distinguished American diplomat who oversaw the State Department’s Benghazi review board — although he tries not to say so too directly. For his demanding and difficult effort  – only the most recent in a long history of public service under both Republican and Democratic administrations — Pickering has found himself under sustained attack by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the excitable partisan who chairs the House Government Reform Committee.

Last Friday, Issa subpoenaed Pickering to deliver a taped deposition to the committee behind closed doors, without offering a public chance to answer the charges already lodged by Republicans against the Accountability Review Board report authored by Pickering and retired admiral Mike Mullen.

Immediately prior to this latest skirmish, Pickering spoke with The National Memo about the ARB report, political maneuvering by the administration’s adversaries, and media coverage of the Benghazi “scandal.”  Asked whether he had ever experienced or seen anything resembling Issa’s conduct, Pickering said, “No, I haven’t.…I suspect that on this particular issue, this guy [Issa] is driven by whatever will maximize his capability to be tough on the administration. This seems to be one effort he’s kind of landed on to make that happen. But I’m only guessing here,” he added.

Meanwhile, Pickering hasn’t noticed much attention being given on Capitol Hill to the extensive recommendations that he and Mullen made to improve security in dangerous posts around the world. “I can’t tell you whether anyone [in Congress] has sat down and examined them and wanted to have hearings on [the recommendations]” – instead of the notorious “talking points” developed by the White House last September. “So far I haven’t seen any evidence of that.”

For Pickering, the subpoena issued by Issa must be especially confusing. Ever since the Government Reform committee announced its planned hearings on Benghazi last winter, its leadership has repeatedly failed to establish a time when the review board chairman  — perhaps the most important witness – could testify. Although at first Pickering says he thought they were “genuinely interested” in getting his testimony, he became “increasingly less inclined” to appear before the committee “as the thing became more politicized.”

Before the May 8 hearing, he made a final effort to arrange to testify publicly. But via the White House and the State Department, he learned that his presence was not desired. Before Issa issued his subpoena to Pickering on Friday, he and Mullen had sent a letter requesting an opportunity to testify publicly – and said that they are “not inclined to give testimony in a closed hearing before that [happens].”

Having listened to Issa and others take potshots at him, Mullen, and their report for several weeks, Pickering wants to rebut some of the misinformation they have propagated, for the record.  He wants to address claims that the military “could have relieved or in fact changed the situation by sending men or equipment or both the night of the event” – and specifically assertions by Gregory Hicks, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya, that four Special Forces soldiers should have been dispatched to Benghazi from Tripoli. Pickering says those four officers would have arrived in Benghazi too late to help and were needed in Tripoli anyway to treat the wounded, who were brought there after the Benghazi attack.

“The third question that has come up,” said Pickering, “is why we didn’t investigate the Secretary of State” and her deputies. The “simple and straightforward answer” is that “they played no role in the decision making which was relevant to the preparations for meeting the security crisis in Benghazi,” and the role they did play on the night of September 11 “was fairly clearly portrayed to us by other people who attended the meetings, and we had no questions about it. We thought that what they did made sense and fit exactly what should have been done.”

What Pickering may mention, if and when he does testify in public, is the role of Congress, which he considers primarily responsible for underfunding the protection of diplomatic posts abroad. Fortunately, legislative idiocy has not prevented the redirection of almost $1.5 billion in funds to improve security in dozens of posts, both physically and with additional security officers and Marine guards.

Aside from the weak oversight of Congress, Pickering also seems critical of the media coverage of Benghazi.  In preparing to chair the Accountability Review Board, Pickering said, he “asked for, received, and read all of the press reporting that the State Department could find and put together for me, covering the events in Benghazi and the aftermath, from the initial attack right through to the day we submitted our report.”

He undertook this required reading because “I thought there would be useful ideas, leads, analyses that had to be taken into account.  What I found in general was a very significant amount of wild, and I think fictionalized, made-up kind of information…

And in effect much of this alleged a kind of betrayal of those people, in one way or another, all of which I thought bordered on Pulitzer Prize creative fiction but didn’t bear any relationship to what we were able to determine, both from the documentary evidence, from the extensive film footage that we had an opportunity to review carefully, and of course the interviews we had with people who were on the spot.” Indeed, Pickering believes that the ARB report is “the best compilation I’ve seen of what actually took place.”

Pickering won’t comment on the “talking points” controversy, which wasn’t relevant to the ARB investigation. But he resents broader allegations by the Republicans and their allies in the media — in particular “the allegation that I would be engaged in a cover-up…I hope people feel that I’m a more honest and hopefully more dedicated public servant than that. “

“Our interest was to do everything we could to find out what happened,” Pickering said, “and then on the basis of that [investigation] to make as clear recommendations as we could to help the State Department and other agencies so that it wouldn’t happen again. That was our motive, that was the driver, and that’s where we went. Any effort to cover up would have been a betrayal… We did everything we could in terms of the national interest in saving future lives.”  He believes it is vital to defend the credibility of the report and prevent it from being undermined. “That’s why I’m interested in talking to the American public now, because I think the report is a good report. And so far I haven’t heard anything that I believe we didn’t consider carefully.”

As for his critics, “I would hope they would read the report. If they have, maybe they need to read it again.” He laughed. “Both Mike Mullen and I believe that it’s important that we have this opportunity, either through Chairman Issa or some other committee, to deal with the people who have concerns about the report and tell them how we were thinking and why we reached the conclusions we did.”

 

By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, May 19, 2013

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Not Half As Clever As They Think They Are”: Does Anybody In Washington Know How To Run A Conspiracy?

In case you’ve forgotten, what took Benghazi from “a thing Republicans keep whining about” to “Scandal!!!” was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn’t contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a “scandal” no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They’re forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout “Aha!” no matter what.

But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl’s source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS’s Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).

Let me just explain quickly in case you haven’t been following this, and then we’ll discuss what it means. Two changes to the emails were made, one in an email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and one from State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Rhodes actually wrote, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.” That was changed to, “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.” In the Nuland email, she actually wrote, “the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency [CIA] warnings so why do we want to feed that either?,” which was changed to, “The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.”

So the changes have the effect of making it look like 1) the CIA was tying the attack to al Qaeda, but the State Department wanted to play that down publicly, and 2) the White House was taking special pains to protect the State Department. Neither of these things appear to be true, but there’s a logic to the Republican staffers wanting to paint that picture. Their argument, after all, is that the wrongdoing here consists of the White House (Obama!) and State Department (Clinton!) trying to fool everyone in America into thinking Benghazi wasn’t a terrorist attack, because Obama’s re-election hinged on the false belief that he had defeated al Qaeda forever, and if there’s any al Qaeda left then Mitt Romney would have won. And yes, that’s ridiculous, but it’s what many conservatives seem to believe.

Kevin Drum offers a good explanation for how this probably happened:

Republicans in Congress saw copies of these emails two months ago and did nothing with them. It was obvious that they showed little more than routine interagency haggling. Then, riding high after last week’s Benghazi hearings, someone got the bright idea of leaking two isolated tidbits and mischaracterizing them in an effort to make the State Department look bad. Apparently they figured it was a twofer: they could stick a shiv into the belly of the White House and they could then badger them to release the entire email chain, knowing they never would.

And then the White House called their bluff, because why not? It isn’t like there was anything incriminating in the real emails. But in their zeal to expose an imaginary White House/State Department conspiracy to mislead the public, the Republicans made their own little conspiracy to mislead the public. Or maybe it wasn’t a conspiracy, but just one person. We don’t know yet, because Karl hasn’t said who his source is. That’s his call to make; I’d argue that while in ordinary circumstances, the confidential relationship between reporter and source is sacrosanct, the reporter has every right to expose the source  if the source lies to the reporter and makes him a party to a deception.

This is one of those times when you have to ask, “What the hell were they thinking?” Did the Republican staffers think they could get away with this? That once the White House noticed the alterations, they wouldn’t release the originals and use it to discredit their whole investigation? It’s another reminder that as a general rule, in politics nobody is half as clever as they think they are. Every once in a while you get a real honest-to-goodness conspiratorial scheme like Iran-Contra, but most of the time people are just bumbling about, making one poorly thought-out decision after another. The reason there aren’t more conspiracies is that people aren’t smart enough to put them together.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 17, 2013

May 18, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“All Talk And No Stick”: CNN Blows Huge Hole In GOP Efforts To Prosecute Benghazi Scandal

CNN’s Jake Tapper has managed to get his hands on the critical White House email suggested as the proof that the White House was more interested in removing references to possible terrorist attacks in the now infamous Benghazi talking points then they were in telling the truth to the American public.

The actual email, written in the days following the Benghazi attack,  reveals something else entirely. We now know that whoever leaked the contents of the email to various media outlets last week seriously misquoted the document, choosing to paraphrase the content in a way that made it appear that the White House was focused on protecting the State Department’s back and covering up information.

Recall that ABC News fueled the GOP cries of a White House cover-up when suggesting that the twelve drafts of the talking points were done with White House participation as part of an effort by the Obama Administration to back up State Department requests that references to terrorist groups be omitted from the talking points.

Here is the relevant portion of the ABC story:

“In an email dated 9/14/12 at 9:34 p.m. -three days after the attack and two days before Ambassador Rice appeared on the Sunday shows – Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote an email saying the State Department’s concerns needed to be addressed. (ABC then quotes the email as saying…)“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.  We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”

The thing is,  it turns out that the actual email tells a very different tale.

Here is the actual content of the email, as written by deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes—

All –

Sorry to be late to this discussion. We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.

“There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed. Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don’t compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression.

“We can take this up tomorrow morning at deputies.”

You can read the actual email here.

Obviously, the email reveals absolutely no effort on the part of the administration to whitewash the message regarding the possible involvement of organized terrorist groups. The email further does not, in any way, seek to support any efforts by the State Department—or anyone else—in terms of favoring one set of message points over another, including any suggestions of removing references to known terrorist groups in the region.

What the email does do is highlight the importance of countering the misinformation that had been circulating and getting all involved on the same page when it comes to sharing what was known to be accurate information.

Does anyone have a problem with that?

Or, should I say, does anyone other than Congressman Darrell Issa, Speaker John Boehner and all of those who wish to manufacture a scandal in the effort to harm this White House have a problem with that?

As Jake Tapper notes it in his article, “Whoever provided those quotes and paraphrases did so inaccurately, seemingly inventing the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed. Rhodes put no emphasis at all in his email on the State Department’s concerns.”

Greg Sargent follows up on this in his piece in the Washington Post—confirming what I noted yesterday with regard to this entire affair looking more and more like a conflict between the State Department and the CIA—

“It’s increasingly clear that this was merely a bureaucratic turf war at work, in which State wanted to get rid of the CIA’s efforts to insert into the talking points stuff that preempts blame against the agency. This new revelation from Tapper takes this even further — it suggests the administration didn’t even prioritize State’s demands and was simply looking to get agencies on the same page to prevent the spreading of misinformation.”

Clearly, someone is funneling false information to certain media outlets that are all too anxious to produce the kind of ‘scoops’ that get headlines—even if these scoops are far from accurate.

Equally clear is that Congressman Issa has built much of his case on a mountain of misinformation and poorly crafted speculation, all designed to serve the political and personal agenda that Issa has been itching to fulfill ever since ascending to the Chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee.

Darrell Issa wants very badly for you to know his name. If ginning up a false scandal is what it takes, that certainly works for the California congressman as he has tried to do it before only to see his efforts crumble beneath that very same mountain of misinformation and false speculation.

Unfortunately for Issa—and his many friends who have gone on record suggesting that Benghazi will lead to an Obama impeachment— with every bit of actual data that emerges, one thing is becoming clear—

Those politicos and pundits more interested in bringing down a president than they are in protecting those serving our country around the world from suffering a Benghazi repeat are being exposed for exactly what they will inevitably be found out to be….

All talk and no stick.

 

By: Rick Ungar, Op-Ed Contributor, Forbes, May 14, 2013

May 15, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi, Media | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The UnSub”: Darrell Issa Is An Odd Choice For Grand Inquisitor

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) receives quite a bit of attention for his unique role on Capitol Hill. In short, he’s the guy whose job it is to create political controversies for the Obama White House, whether they have merit or not.

So, when House Republicans investigated Solyndra’s loan guarantees, it was Issa leading the hearings. When House Republicans tried to turn “Fast and Furious” into a scandal, it was Issa yelling at Justice Department officials. And when House Republicans decided to turn last September’s attacks in Benghazi into a political story, it was Issa who adopted the role of Grand Inquisitor.

But every time I see the California Republican, I think of this Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker from a couple of years ago, detailing Issa’s rather remarkable background, and his rise to wealth and power despite several “troubles.”

“Many politicians have committed indiscretions in earlier years: maybe they had an affair or hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Issa, it turned out, had, among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.”

As we discussed last year, Lizza wasn’t being hyperbolic. Issa really has spent a fair amount of his adult life as a suspected criminal.

Lizza’s report highlighted Issa having one run-in with the law after another, including arrests and indictments. There are also many suspected crimes — he’s accused of deliberately burning down a building and threatening a former employee with a gun — which did not lead to formal charges, but which nevertheless cast the congressman in a less-than-flattering light.

The New Yorker report also noted an incident in which Issa was in a car accident with a woman who needed to be hospitalized. He drove away before the police could arrive because, as he told the person he hit, he didn’t have time to wait. Issa didn’t face charges, but he was sued over the matter, and agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

And in case that weren’t quite enough, the same article also noted instances in which Issa appears to have lied about his background.

The congressman, for example, claimed to receive the “highest possible” ratings during his Army career, despite the fact that at one point he “received unsatisfactory conduct and efficiency ratings and was transferred to a supply depot.” Issa also claimed to have provided security for President Nixon in 1971, which wasn’t true, and said he won a national Entrepreneur of the Year award, but didn’t.

As a rule, people with this kind of background do not run for Congress. If they do and manage to get elected, they’re not generally tasked with leading investigations into others’ suspected wrongdoing.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blow, May 13, 2013

May 14, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi, Politics | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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