House Republicans on Monday asked to interview retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the veteran diplomat who headed the State Department's probe into last year's attack in Benghazi, Libya, and Mr. Pickering said he would be happy to cooperate.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, wrote Mr. Pickering to ask him to submit to a transcribed interview with committee staff and to appear before the panel later for a public hearing.
His committee has been investigating the chain of events surrounding the terrorist assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last year that left four Americans dead. Mr. Issa and Mr. Pickering sparred on the Sunday talk shows over whether the diplomat had been asked to testify at the panel's hearings last week.
Mr. Pickering, who led the State Department's internal accountability review board, insisted in an interview that he is ready to help.
"I am anxious and indeed pleased to appear before the committee to answer any questions they might have about the report," he said.
Having a transcribed interview with committee investigators happens regularly "in very important or complex testimony," committee spokesman Frederick R. Hill said.
The review board's work has come under renewed scrutiny since the dramatic hearings last week at which Gregory N. Hicks, the man who became the most senior U.S. diplomat in Libya when Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed in the September attack, charged that the board had let senior officials "off the hook."
Three other Americans also perished in the attack: foreign service officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Mr. Pickering said he was working with State Department officials to find the best way to answer lawmakers' questions.
"I am happy to do whatever I can to explain our work to the committee," the diplomat said.
In separate letter to Mr. Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, co-chairman of the accountability review board and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Issa noted that "the White House and the State Department have touted the ARB's report as the definitive account of how and why the Benghazi attacks occurred."
"It is necessary for the committee to understand whether the criticisms of the ARB's work that we heard from witnesses on May 8, 2013 are valid," he added.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, is pressing Mr. Issa to forgo private depositions of the two men and instead hold an open hearing May 22. Mr. Issa's letter to Mr. Pickering and Adm. Mullen said they would work out a hearing for their public testimony at a later date.
Republicans argue that the accountability review board failed to hold those at the highest levels of the State Department responsible, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack. An interim report issued by the chairmen of five House committees that are looking into the attacks cleared the Defense Department and the intelligence community of wrongdoing but said Mrs. Clinton and the White House deserve blame.
Republicans say the accountability review board was constrained by its organizing rules and didn't have the authority to take its investigation that high up the chain of command.
The board's report identified but did not name four officials at the assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary level who "failed to show leadership" and did not follow through on complex questions about where to lay responsibility for making decisions about security at the temporary diplomatic post in Benghazi, which was quickly overrun and set ablaze by extremists in the Sept. 11 attack while the ambassador was visiting.
As career staff, the four cannot be fired summarily because they were not found to be negligent or reckless. They are on administrative leave, officials confirmed Monday.
Mandate in question
Mr. Pickering has said repeatedly that the law that mandated the board's creation after the attack also set its terms — five questions that the investigation must answer.
"According to the law, we had five questions to answer, all related to security and intelligence aspects of the attack. Anything beyond that was not in our mandate," he said Monday.
Mr. Pickering said the board spoke with Mrs. Clinton and her deputy William Burns during its investigation, but did not question them because the investigators by then "had determined to our satisfaction where the responsibility lay. We knew where the decisions were made and where they had been reviewed and that was the level where we identified the individuals that had failed."
State Department officials defended the board's work Monday. Spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said the investigation was "a thorough process. We are certainly satisfied with the work they did."
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called for Mr. Pickering to testify.
Democrats said he can publicly refute criticisms of his work, and Republicans said they want to question him about the extent and limits of his inquiry.
Republicans say many of their concerns center around the development of unclassified "talking points" that Obama administration officials used to explain the attack afterward. The board did not examine that, Mr. Pickering said.
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