House Republicans grill Benghazi auditor on blame for security lapses

House Republicans grilled the co-author of the State Department's independent Benghazi audit for several hours on Tuesday with the clear intention of trying to place blame on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to Democrats who were in the room. 

Retired diplomat Thomas Pickering appeared for the closed-door deposition after being subpoenaed by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Pickering was asked at length about his Accountability Review Board's (ARB) decision to place blame on four mid-level State Department officials, leaving Democrats with little doubt that Republicans were building a case against Clinton.

“It was very much a micro-issue of who some of the folks were to be disciplined,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). “That's about as far they got in the first hour.”

Asked by The Hill if the questions appeared to be geared at laying the groundwork for an attack on Clinton, he said yes.

“I'm from Wisconsin. We've got a lot of lakes. I know a little bit about fishing,” he said. “I think that's what was happening. But I also saw the hook coming up a lot” with nothing on the end.

Issa had no comment when he came out of the deposition. He has previously said Pickering should have interviewed Clinton as part of the ARB and said his committee's probe into the attack has concluded that Clinton was “just wrong” when she testified in January that she had nothing to do with approving security cuts at the embassy.

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Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed when Islamist militants attacked the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11. 

House Republicans are continuing to investigate the Obama administration's role prior to the attack as well as in crafting talking points shared with Congress and the public in the days following. Democrats say Republicans are seeking to score political points against Clinton, a possible Democratic front-runner in the 2016 presidential election.

Pickering's ARB report last year recommended that four individuals – three with the diplomatic safety bureau and one with the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs – should be reprimanded, although it stopped short of calling for anyone's dismissal. Pickering and his co-author, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, have said they placed blame on the Assistant Secretary level because that's where “the rubber meets the road.”

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) said some of Tuesday's questions centered around a Daily Beast interview with Raymond Maxwell, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs who has been placed on administrative leave. Maxwell says he was scapegoated despite playing no role in embassy security while the State Department has not disciplined his boss, Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones.

Cartwright said Pickering told the lawmakers that he considered the chance to co-author the ARB report as a “debt of honor” in memory of slain ambassador Christopher Stevens, a friend.

“This is somebody who was not taking the job lightly,” Cartwright said, “and somebody who really wanted to come up with a comprehensive set of recommendations to prevent this kind of tragedy ever from happening again.”

And the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), said Issa now owes it to Pickering to allow him to defend himself in a public hearing against accusations that his report deliberately sought to protect Clinton.

“I wish that the public could be in the deposition,” Cummings said. “The fact is that Ambassador Pickering asked to do this publicly and was denied that opportunity. And I think the public would benefit greatly from hearing what he has to say.”

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