By Julian Pecquet - 05/26/13 10:30 PM EDT
Democrats vow they won't be caught flat-footed when the co-author of the State Department's independent audit on Benghazi appears for a closed-door interview with congressional investigators next month.
“If it's true to form, if it's a closed deposition, his staff [will] cherry pick content and leak it once again to the press that's only too willing to print it,” panel member Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told The Hill. “It might be grossly inaccurate. In fact, it may be the opposite of what's being asserted. But by the time somebody gets around to reporting that – if they ever do – the damage is done.”
To stop that from happening, Connolly said, “I would hope Pickering and his attorney would refuse to be deposed without Democrats present.”
Republicans on the committee say Democrats will be allowed to sit in on the deposition, just like they have for other formal interviews.
Democrats say that hasn't stopped Issa from leaking a constant drip-drip of damaging allegations about Benghazi over the past few weeks. These include the revelation that the Obama administration ordered a special forces team in Tripoli to stand down before the attack was over.
Republicans have faulted Pickering and his Accountability Review Board for not interviewing then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for last year's report into the terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The report instead pointed the finger at lower-level managers for security lapses at the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
Democrats say Pickering and his co-author, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, should be able to defend their report in a public hearing. Pickering could not be reached for comment.
“House Republicans have politicized this investigation from the beginning, and they have recklessly accused Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen of being complicit in a cover-up," said the panel's ranking member, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). "It is time for the Chairman to honor his commitment to hold a hearing to allow these officials to respond to these reckless accusations, instead of imposing new conditions to keep them from testifying. Members of Congress and the American people should hear directly from these officials – in public – and the Chairman’s efforts to keep them behind closed doors undermines the Committee’s credibility and does a disservice to the truth.”
But Issa and his lieutenants say they need to interrogate Pickering first to be ready to ask probing questions at a subsequent hearing.
The goal of a deposition, oversight panel member Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) told The Hill, is to get “the full facts.”
“It's hard to unlock the mysteries in five-minute increments in a committee hearing,” Gowdy said. “So if you want to find out what happened and who he interviewed, what questions he asked, why he didn't interview certain people, you need to do it in a deposition.”
Gowdy said Mullen should be deposed next. And Issa sent Secretary of State John Kerry a letter last week asking him to make 13 current and former State Department officials – including then-deputy chief of staff Jacob Sullivan and former State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland – available for future depositions.
Democrats say Issa's real target is Clinton, the presumptive Democratic front-runner for the 2016 presidential election.
They say Issa has shut them out of the investigation of the Benghazi attack, releasing a 46-page report along with four other committees and interviewing witnesses without Democrats' input.
Democrats acknowledge that they were present last month when the committee conducted its transcribed interview with the Number 2 diplomat in Libya at the time of the attack, Gregory Hicks. But they say they were never invited to speak to another key witness in the panel's hearing with self-described State Department whistle-blowers.
Democrats say they should have been given a chance to interview Mark Thompson, the State Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, ahead of the May 8 hearing. They say his Republican attorney, Joseph diGenova, shielded him from Democrats.
Issa strongly denied interfering during the hearing.
“Mr. Thompson, is it your decision who you talk to?” he asked. “And did any of my people ever tell you not to talk to the Democratic minority?”
“No,” Thompson answered.