The Cable

Issa gets what he wants: Pickering agrees to Benghazi interview

When it comes to settling disputes, there's nothing like subpoena power. On Wednesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) claimed victory in his two-week standoff with retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering over how to proceed with the GOP-led investigation into last year's assault in Benghazi, Libya.

"Today, Ambassador Pickering reached an agreement with the Oversight Committee to voluntarily appear for a transcribed interview and answer all questions posed by Committee investigators," Issa said in a release.  "As such, I have lifted his legal obligation to appear tomorrow for a deposition."

Pickering and retired Admiral Mike Mullen co-chaired the Accountability Review Board, an investigation into the United States government's response to the attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans. The report found "systematic failures and leadership management deficiencies" at the State Department prior to the attack. But Issa wants to know why the ARB didn't hold higher-ranking State Department officials accountable.

Pickering had resisted Issa's efforts to question him in a private interview setting, preferring a public hearing. "Depositions are usually reserved for fact witnesses and people under investigation," he told The Cable last week. "We are not fact witnesses to Benghazi and we are not under investigation."

But on Friday, Issa rejected Pickering's offer for a one-off public hearing and issued a subpoena in a move that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the committee, called a "stark example of extreme Republican overreach."

Issa defended the decision, calling a transcribed interview between Pickering and House investigators a necessary precursor to a public hearing. "A fully informed hearing, in which the Committee begins with a factual understanding of how the Board reached its conclusions, is critical to engaging in a public discussion with you about criticisms career State Department officials levied at the ARB's efforts and recommendations," Issa said.

Pickering's attendance at a pre-hearing interview will allow Issa to better control the narrative of the public hearing and run it more efficiently. Pickering says Issa is running a "political circus," and the time for closed-door interviews is over. "Now that the circus has been launched, we want to make our case in front of the public," Pickering told The Cable. Now it appears Pickering will have to wait. The date of the pre-hearing interview has not yet been scheduled.


The Cable

Peace talks in jeopardy: Rebels demand heavy weapons as precondition

Secretary of State John Kerry's goal of bringing the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime to the negotiating table next month has hit a major snag. In a letter obtained by The Cable, Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the rebels' Supreme Military Council, says that the United States must establish "strategic military balance" between the rebels and Assad as a precondition to any peace talks.

The letter does not detail specifics, but Dan Layman, media relations director at the Syrian Support Group, a licensed U.S. advocacy group with extensive contacts to the Free Syrian Army, said the demand requires anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry such as 90 mm rockets, recoilless rifles, and ideally man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS).

"He's looking for game-changing weapons," said Layman. "I think he knows he's not going to get MANPADS, but weaponry that can take on regime armor in addition to small arms is a must."

The Obama administration does not currently support shipping U.S.-purchased weapons to rebels, however, and there's no sign this will happen before next month's U.S.-Russian proposed peace talks in Geneva. (Though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted yesterday to arm some Syrian rebel groups, there's no indication when the bill will move to the Senate floor.) In recent days, U.S. officials have called the proposed Geneva conference "the most serious effort in the last two years to get the Syrian government to sit down and negotiate with the Syrian opposition." 

In the letter, Idris says the Free Syrian Army will only be willing to negotiate if the U.S. provides weapons first. "For the negotiations to be of any substance, we must reach a strategic military balance, without which the regime will feel empowered to dictate ... while fully sustained logistically and militarily by Russia and Iran," reads the letter, sent to Kerry over the weekend. "Such untenable situation requires that the Unites States, as the leader of the free world, provide the Free Syrian Army forces under the Supreme Military Council with the requisite advanced weapons to sustain defensive military capabilities in the face of the Assad forces." 

When it was suggested to Layman that any deal to arm the rebels was highly unlikely to take place before the talks, he agreed. "That's my impression too." Layman said the expectation is for the talks to fail, which would give cover to the Obama administration to finally arm the rebels. "Geneva is a legitimate attempt at a negotiation ... but it's the last gasp for a political solution," he said.

He pointed to Kerry's remarks today at a press conference in Amman, Jordan. "If Assad refuses to negotiate on the proposals of the Geneva conference that calls for a transitional government in Syria, we will increase our support for the rebels," Kerry said.

Clearly, from the rebel perspective, they're hoping "support" means advanced weaponry. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Read Idris's full letter below:

Letter ToKerry Geneva 1