- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2013

The Obama administration is trying to move beyond Benghazi, saying Monday that it has tightened security at diplomatic posts and created an official position to ensure “high-threat” missions are properly protected — but House Republicans are pressing on with investigations into the Sept. 11 attack.

Investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are preparing for a deposition Thursday from Thomas R. Pickering, the veteran career diplomat who led the State Department-chartered investigation into the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Mr. Pickering will make his appearance after an increasingly testy exchange of correspondence last week. Mr. Pickering and his vice-chairman, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, originally insisted on giving only public testimony before a full committee hearing.

Instead, committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, issued a subpoena ordering Mr. Pickering to appear for the deposition Thursday. Under committee rules, Mr. Pickering may be accompanied by a personal attorney but no State Department officials are allowed, said Frederick R. Hill, the committee’s communications director.

Mr. Hill said the committee still wants to see several categories of documents from the administration despite a White House release last week of 100 pages of emails on the development of unclassified “talking points” about the attack.

Mr. Pickering declined to comment on the subpoena Monday, but he told MSNBC on Friday that he was “consulting with the State Department and the lawyers there.”

The congressionally mandated panel Mr. Pickering led, called an accountability review board, produced a blistering report cataloging failures of leadership that left diplomats at the temporary consulate in Benghazi lacking most of the basic security measures that the law required for permanent facilities. The emergency plan relied on personnel at the annex, which subsequently came under attack.

“I’ve always wanted a public hearing,” Mr. Pickering said Friday. “I’m interested in finding a way to make sure that our report is defended, that I answer all the questions. My hope is to do so in public because the public deserves to know.”

Republicans have criticized Mr. Pickering for not interviewing Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack. He has said the board spoke with her, but by then had determined that the key decisions about security in Benghazi had been made and reviewed at a much lower level in the bureaucracy.

A former senior congressional investigator said depositions were a tool that committees frequently used. “It allows the committee to understand what the witness knows before taking public testimony,” said Eleanor Hill, a veteran congressional staffer who was director of the joint congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.

Ms. Hill, now a partner at the King and Spalding law firm in Washington, said she could not comment on the oversight committee’s investigation specifically, but she cautioned that in general, especially when dealing with a highly politicized issue, investigators “have to be professional. You have to stick to the facts.”

“On an issue that’s very volatile and very partisan, the minute you overstate the facts, you undermine your credibility,” she said.

On Monday, in remarks to student diplomats, Secretary of State John F. Kerry praised the bravery of slain foreign service officers including Mr. Stevens, touted the administration’s efforts to keep U.S. diplomats safe and called on Congress to fully fund U.S. diplomatic posts.

He said he was “committed to implementing every single one of the recommendations in the report of the accountability review board and doing more.”

“We’re bringing on more security personnel. We’re enhancing our training. We’re putting more Marines at our high-threat diplomatic posts, and we’re making sure that their first responsibility is protecting our people, not just classified materials,” he said.

He added that officials were working with the Defense Department, “linking our embassies with various military commands, to make emergency [extraction] more central to our military mission.”

That “fault line” between embassies and military commanders was one of the shortcomings in pre-attack planning identified by James Carafano, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation think tank.

He said that, in a high-threat environment such as Benghazi, where the temporary nature of the facility made security measures impractical, what was needed above all was a “robust” contingency plan.

“If you can’t mitigate the threat, you have to prepare for what happens when it appears,” he said, but there was a disconnect between the military and diplomatic chain of command in the field.

“If you look at the wiring diagram [for State Department and military chains of command], they don’t really come together until you reach the White House,” he said. “Operationally there’s nothing joining the ambassador and the [combatant commander],” he said.

Mr. Pickering’s board was not able explore that seam properly, he said, because it had “primarily looked at the State Department.”

The board had become “a kind of dead end” for congressional investigators. “Every question you ask, the answer is, ‘Oh, the [board] looked into that.’ If it was such a comprehensive inquiry, why do there seem to be so many unanswered questions still?”

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