The leaders of the Administrative Review Board that investigated the attacks on US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, appeared before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Thursday, and offered testimony that further undermined the already-tattered credibility of their own probe.
In descriptions that emphasized their friendly, even collaborative dealings with the top State Department officials who were ostensibly among the subjects of their investigation, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen defended their work and shrugged off criticism from Republicans on the panel.
But the substance of the responses from Pickering and Mullen, respectively chairman and vice chairman of the ARB, validated the skepticism of their critics and raised many new questions about the independence of their work and the reliability of their conclusions.
If more news organizations were covering Benghazi as a legitimate news story, the ARB hearings, and the lengthy depositions that preceded them, would represent a significant development. For nine months, top Obama administration officials have used the ARB report as something of a shield, portraying the probe as exhaustive and independent in order to deflect the many unanswered questions about Benghazi that remain. And because the new, discrediting information about the ARB comes from the ARB leaders themselves–in their own words, not those of their critics–defenders of the administration will have a hard time dismissing it as partisan.
The hearings and transcribed interviews made clear that the ARB probe was neither exhaustive nor independent.
Among the revelations:
*Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handpicked the two leaders of the ARB who were given the job of investigating her department.
*Cheryl Mills, the chief of staff and senior counselor to Secretary Clinton, was intimately involved with the ARB panel from the beginning. She called the leaders at Clinton’s behest to ask them to serve, she was briefed regularly on the investigation as it unfolded and she received a draft copy of the report before it was finalized.
*Several senior Clinton advisers were provided draft copies of the ARB report before it was released to the public.
*The vice chairman of the ARB testified that he called Mills to warn her that an impending appearance of Charlene Lamb before Congress would be problematic for the State Department. Lamb had done poorly in her interview with the ARB, Mullen said, and he called Mills because he was worried that a poor performance before Congress would cause problems for the State Department and its leadership. When Representative Jim Jordan asked Mullen if he would have placed the call to Mills if Lamb had performed well, he said no.
*The chairman of the panel acknowledged at least one instance in which language in the report was softened after an early draft was sent to Clinton and her top aides. “The draft, as I believe it went to her, said the security posture was grossly inadequate for Benghazi, period. And we made the editorial correction recognizing that there was certainly a very real point that ‘grossly’ was probably not applicable to Benghazi in light of the changes that the State Department had made, but it was clearly applicable to dealing with the specific circumstances of the attack.”
*The vice chairman testified in his deposition that the ARB received “very specific tasking from Secretary Clinton on her expectations with respect to this board” and that nobody on the board had any input on the scope of their work.
*The panel was largely staffed by current and former State Department officials and worked out of State Department offices.
*The ARB did not speak with nine key military officials on the ground in Libya or Germany who were deeply involved in the US response to the attacks. Among those who was never interviewed: Lt. Colonel Steven Gibson, who was on the ground in Tripoli and whom State Department official Greg Hicks has testified was on the receiving end of the “stand-down” order that Obama officials have repeatedly disclaimed.
*Although the ARB did not interview Secretary Clinton as part of its investigation, they provided her with a two-hour briefing about the details of the report before it was finalized and released to the public.
*The board did not interview either Cheryl Mills or Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, another close adviser to Clinton.
*None of the interviews the ARB conducted were recorded in any fashion – no audio, no video, no court reporter. The only record of those sessions is in notes taken by a staff member. According to the vice chairman: “The staff would put a summary of the interview together. We would – the members would be able to review that summary shortly after the interview.” (Those summaries and the notes that produced them have not been provided to Congress).