The Cable

Issa and Pickering clash over new Benghazi hearing

In the battle to shape the American public's perception of what happened in Benghazi, logistics is everything. On Wednesday, the two emerging rivals in this struggle, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and retired Amb. Thomas Pickering, co-chair of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) for the incident, clashed over the appropriate venue to discuss the U.S. government's response to last September's terrorist attack.

On Sunday, Issa announced his invitation to hear Pickering's sworn testimony in a private "deposition" to be followed by a public hearing. On Tuesday, Pickering sent a letter to Issa that essentially said thanks but no thanks -- I'd prefer a public hearing only.

In an interview with The Cable Wednesday morning, Pickering said he opposed a private deposition for two reasons not mentioned in his Tuesday letter. First, he made no bones about his view that Issa is turning the Benghazi tragedy into a "political circus." And, "now that the circus has been launched, we want to make our case in front of the public," Pickering said, referring to himself and retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the other ARB co-chair.

Second, Pickering found the entire idea of a deposition to be inappropriate given his role in reviewing the investigation. "Depositions are usually reserved for fact witnesses and people under investigation," he said. "We are not fact witnesses to Benghazi and we are not under investigation, at least not yet," he said, laughing, in a nod to Issa's aggressive appetite for Oversight Committee probes. Additionally, depositions are held "in a dark room with investigative personnel and no opportunity to have your voice heard," he said, "while everyone else already got their voice heard."

But Issa spokesman Frederick Hill tells The Cable the ambassador has nothing to worry about. "The committee's request to Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen is for them to voluntarily appear for transcribed interviews prior to a public hearing just as former Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks did," Hill said. "The committee has requested an answer by 5 p.m. today." Because Pickering never expressly refused a deposition in his Tuesday letter, Issa sent another letter this morning repeating his request for a private, transcribed interview.

"I appreciate your willingness to testify publicly," writes Issa. "However, your response failed to indicate your willingness to appear for a transcribed interview."

Why is Issa so intent on a private meeting? "Your transcribed testimony will allow Members of the Committee to ask informed questions during a subsequent hearing," Issa writes. A transcribed interview would also help Issa arrange the subsequent public hearing as he sees fit, and take away some of the spontaneity involved in the back-and-forth questioning.

The battle over the hearing's format comes as Pickering and Mullen's ARB report takes increasing fire from Republicans for failing to focus on higher-ranking State Department personnel, including the secretary of state at the time, Hillary Clinton. During last Wednesday's hearing, Hicks, the No. 2 diplomat in Libya during the assault, said the ARB had "let people off the hook," and another witness said it failed to interview "people who I personally know were involved in key decisions."

On Meet the Press  Sunday, David Gregory picked up this line of argument, asking Pickering, "Did you not pay sufficient attention to -- and time with the secretary of state?"

"I believe we did," responded Pickering. "We had a session with the secretary. It took place very near the end of the report. It took place when we had preliminary judgments about who made the decisions, where they were made, and by whom they were reviewed. We felt that that was more than sufficient for the preponderance of evidence that we had collected to make our decisions and you know that our decisions was two of those people should be separated from their jobs. Two others failed in their performance."

Whether or not Issa and Pickering can settle their differences and schedule a hearing together is yet to be seen. Read their dueling letters here and here.

The Cable

Senators introduce bipartisan bill to arm Syrian rebels

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) introduced a bill Wednesday to arm the Syrian rebels, the latest piece of legislation aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to intervene more aggressively in the protracted civil war. The bill provides lethal weapons to vetted members of the Syrian opposition and beefs up sanctions on weapons sales and petroleum sales to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

In short, it has all the hallmarks of the bill Menendez introduced last week, but with a bipartisan sheen. As Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the Menendez bill last week, "If you want to pressure the president into acting, it's a pretty good bill ...The last time the Hill moved on Syria was sanctions on Syrian oil in the summer of 2011. That pressured the president to move, and this could too." Its new bipartisan gloss could give it that much more power.

The legislation is set to be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a markup session scheduled for Tuesday, May 21. Here's the release:

Menendez, Corker Introduce Syria Transition Support Act

WASHINGTON, DC - U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) today introduced the Syria Transition Support Act, bipartisan legislation that plans for a post-Assad Syria by offering humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, limited lethal and non-lethal weapons, and training to vetted Syrian groups.

"To change the tipping point in Syria against the Assad regime, we must support the opposition by providing lethal arms and help build a free Syria," Menendez said.  "Vital national interests are at stake and we cannot watch from the sidelines as the Iranian presence in Syria grows, a growing refugee crisis threatens to destabilize the region, chemical weapons are used against the Syrian people, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups take root there."

"The future for Syria is uncertain, but the U.S. has a vested interest in trying to prevent an extremist takeover, which poses a very real risk for us and the region.  Without authorizing the use of force or additional spending, this legislation will begin to implement a more coherent U.S. strategy, both now and for the day after Assad, that is focused on trying to shift the momentum on the ground toward moderate opposition groups while also helping them build support within and outside Syria for a new government," said Corker. "This effort coupled with Russia's willingness to participate in talks for political transition will give us the best opportunity for a better outcome."

The Menendez-Corker legislation includes six key elements.

  • Authority to provide arms, military training and non-lethal supplies to the Syrian armed opposition: Groups that have gone through a thorough vetting process which meet certain criteria on human-rights, terrorism, and non-proliferation would be eligible. A presidential waiver is included allowing for the distribution of anti-aircraft defensive systems with strict limitations.
  • Creation of a $250 million transition fund each year through FY2015 drawn from funds otherwise appropriated for regional transition support: To assist the civilian opposition in early transition institution building and maintenance of existing institutions, such as preserving security institutions, preventing regional spillover, promoting government formation, supporting transition justice, and reconciliation efforts.
  • Sanctions on arms and oil sales to Assad: Targeting any person that the President of the United States determines has knowingly participated in or facilitated a transaction related to the sale or transfer of military equipment, arms, petroleum, or petroleum products to the Assad regime.
  • Broad authority for humanitarian assistance: To ensure the administration is not hampered in its efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. This section does not authorize any new or additional funding.
  • Administration strategy: Requiring the administration to work with Congress and keep it fully apprised of strategy towards Syria, including working through the international community and Russia to find a political settlement.
  • Amendment to the Syria Accountability Act: To allow for sanctions removal once a transitional government is in place and certain terrorism and WMD criteria have been met.