Thomas Pickering on the chain of command: Ambassador to secretary of State

Pickering, 81, is the consummate professional diplomat, posted as ambassador to such spots, both hot and complex, as Russia, India, Israel, Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, and to other positions here and abroad where real know-how was required, under Democratic and Republican presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton).

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That the retired diplomat now finds himself in the media spotlight and the conservative cross hairs is the reward, I suppose, for volunteering his services as co-chairman of the Benghazi Accountability and Review Board charged with pinpointing the level of responsibility for security lapses at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The report, which was scathing on the subject of security holes in Libya, was released in December.

During the course of our conversation in 2009 — some three years before the horrific deaths in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a career foreign service officer — Pickering remarked emphatically on his experience of the clear and direct communication link between the ambassador in the field and the secretary of State.

The subject arose when I asked if bundlers have an advantage over professional diplomats because they presumably know the president and thus have his ear. “I wrote messages to the president when both the State Department and I thought it would be useful,"Pickering replied, "You run around the ... Secretary of State at your peril as an ambassador ... The president’s letter to ambassadors normally says, 'You will receive your instructions through the secretary of State unless I decide to instruct you directly.' "

As much as I admire Pickering and his attempts, albeit unsuccessful, to limit the number of donor ambassadors to 10 percent (from the typical 30 percent), I do wonder why he and his review board colleagues did not interview then-Secretary of State Clinton or her two deputies.

As The New York Times reported, Pickering’s investigatory board " ... concluded that mistakes were made by less senior officials.”

Given that the late Stevens’ No. 2, the deputy chief of mission, Gregory Hicks, has testified that from Tripoli where the embassy is located, he briefed Hillary Clinton that night, not interviewing her does seem puzzling.

Hicks has also said that, in other calls to other officials, he pleaded in vain for a C-130 plane with special operations forces aboard, to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) currently has the megaphone in raising suspicions about what he portrays as a nefarious pass bestowed on Clinton. Issa announced today that he will seek testimony from Pickering and his Benghazi co-chairman, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The tone and intent of some Republicans is perhaps best captured in a statement from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who already seems to be running for president, delivered, naturally, in a speech in Iowa that Benghazi “precludes Hillary Clinton from ever holding office."

President Obama today called the Benghazi allegations “a sideshow," and it is, in a way. But as Pickering observed three years ago, the secretary of State is the main show, and Hillary Clinton will and should find herself answering some difficult and excruciatingly painful questions.