The Cable

Documents Surface That Undermine Issa's Benghazi Report

Earlier this week, House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa released a scathing critique of the State Department's investigation into the Benghazi incident. Hours later, the committee quietly released documents that run against a number of claims in Issa's report, including the idea that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to blame for security failures in Benghazi.

Issa leaked details of his new report on Sunday to select media outlets. The report eviscerated the investigation into last year's terrorist attack in Benghazi led by Admiral Mike Mullen and Ambassador Thomas Pickering, otherwise known as the Accountability Review Board (ARB). Among the congressional report's key findings: the ARB was not comprehensive; it did not conduct thorough interviews, it was plagued by conflicts of interest; and the board failed to hold senior State Department officials accountable, such as Clinton.

The Issa report tried to pin the blame on Clinton by highlighting interviews with officials at the State Department's Bureau of Near East Affairs who recall Clinton wanting to continue operating a facility in Benghazi. "Several NEA officials recalled the Secretary's desire to continue operating the Benghazi mission in September 2011," reads an Issa press release.

Nevermind the fact that those interviews do not pertain to security decisions made by Clinton and are vague in nature -- both Mullen and Pickering addressed the issue of Clinton's culpability at length in the newly-released transcripts from June. "We interviewed everyone that we thought was relevant. And in the end there was no official, including the Secretary of State, whose involvement wasn't reviewed," Mullen said.

The retired admiral added that it was impossible to peg Clinton to the security failures because she was too far removed from those decisions. "[W]e found no evidence whatsoever that [Secretary Clinton] was involved in security decisions [in Libya]," he said.

Pickering provided a similar answer. When asked if Clinton had a role in "establishing the Benghazi compound or approving its security profile," he testified on June 4 that "She did not have such a role."

Elsewhere, Issa's report states that the "ARB was not comprehensive," it "may have been affected by conflicts of interest," and the "ARB did not conduct through interviews."

But Mullen disputes these contentions in his June interview, saying the ARB had ample independence. "From my perspective, the most important descriptive characteristic of it is that it would be independent ... and had that not been the case, I certainly wouldn't have agreed to it," he said. "I saw in execution that independence throughout, from beginning to end, that it was supported. We had the authority to, within the scope of the tasking, to do just about anything that we thought was important."

Issa's report also alleged that Mullen "undermined" the independence of the ARB, citing an inappropriate "heads-up" he gave to State Department Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills ahead of her ARB interview. "Mullen put Cheryl Mills on notice in advance of her interview that the Board's questions could be ‘difficult' for the State Department," said the Issa report.  

However, the transcript from Mullen's testimony shows that his communication with Mills had nothing to do with her testimony. Instead, it was about the testimony of deputy assistant secretary Charlene Lamb, who had little experiencing testifying before Congress. "To the best of my knowledge, she [Ms. Lamb] hadn't appeared either ever, or many times certainly [before Congress]. So essentially I gave Ms. Mills a head's up that I thought that her [Ms. Lamb's] appearance could be a very difficult appearance for the State  Department, and ... that was the extent of the conversation," said Mullen.

Issa spokeswoman Becca Watkins acknowledged to The Cable that the accusation was misdirected in the report, but maintained that it could still be a sign of inappropriate behavior on the part of Mullen. "The episode where ARB co-chair Mullen gave Cheryl Mills a heads up that Charlene Lamb would be a bad congressional witness for the Department is a potent example of the ARB, at its outset, being more focused on helping the Department manage a public relations crisis than it was on objectively examining the culpability of senior officials," she said.

Regardless, this latest PR war between the Republican-controlled Oversight Committee and the State Department has turned an already bad relationship to a downright poisonous one at the staff level.

"On Sunday, the Department was put in the difficult position of being forced to respond to allegations made in a report we didn't have and based on transcripts we had never seen," a State Department official told The Cable.

Part of the animosity stems from the fact that Issa fought tooth and nail to get Pickering to testify in a private deposition. When Pickering finally agreed to talk, Issa kept it under wraps for months and ignored the substance of Pickering's testimony.

This, of course, is what Pickering feared all along, which is why he resisted Issa's deposition invitation in May and offered instead to testify in public before the committee. But Issa balked at the idea and used the threat of subpoena to bring him into a closed door deposition. It was only until Thursday that Pickering and Mullen finally testified in public, much to the relief of the Oversight Committee's ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD).

"Republicans forced Admiral Pickering and Ambassador Mullen to submit to closed door depositions and interviews-rather than allowing them to respond at a public hearing-and then sat on those transcripts for months," Cummings told The Cable. "Yesterday, these two respected public servants were finally allowed to address the American people and put these unfounded accusations to rest."

Another reason for the vitriol between State and the committee is Issa's habit of firing off subpoenas in a hurry. Yesterday, for instance, the committee issued subpoenas for interviews of diplomatic security (DS) personnel -- just one of many, many subpoenas in the last year. But in a letter Issa sent to the State Department last week, he said Foggy Bottom would have until next Tuesday to respond. "I must receive confirmation that the Department will make these witnesses available to Committee investigators by September, 24, 2013. Otherwise, I will have no alternative but to consider the use of compulsory process."

To be sure, Issa is under no obligation to parrot the testimony of Pickering or Mullen, and the fact that the two directly contradicted his findings does not mean everything in the report is unfounded. (For what it's worth, DS officials speaking with The Cable have expressed resentment that State's Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy has escaped punishment given his role in overseeing diplomatic security.)

However, Issa's willingness to conceal inconvenient information for months on end and jump ahead of his own subpoena deadlines has created a contentious environment between the committee and Foggy Bottom.

Don't expect a ceasefire anytime soon.

"Non-substantive complaints by anonymous State Department officials only confirm that they recognize this and other facts included in the Committee's report as damaging to their distorted portrayal of the ARB's review," Watkins told The Cable.

The Cable

Cleaning Up Assad's Chemical Weapons Is The New Mideast Gold Rush

Giulano Porcari has spent the past decade shuttling back and forth from his native Italy to Libya, where his company has a multi-million dollar contract to destroy the country's stockpiles of chemical weapons. He would love to do the same type of work in Syria, where the quantities of armaments -- and the money companies like his could potentially earn for eradicating them -- are exponentially larger. So, though, are the risks.

"Of course I would love to get a contract in Syria -- it's the same work we did in Libya, just a lot more of it," he said by phone from Italy. "But at the present time it's too dangerous. Do you think I want to be shot at? No thank you."

Syria's apparent willingness to put its chemical weapons under international supervision and eventually destroy them has been seen as a win for Russia, which proposed the deal. The Obama administration, meanwhile it being alternately hailed as pulling off a last-minute solution to the crisis -- or chided for getting caught flat-footed by Moscow's diplomatic maneuvering.

The actual work of eliminating Syria's armaments won't be done by the U.S. or Russia, however. It will be done by companies like Porcari's firm, Sipsa, which could make enormous amounts of money for their efforts. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with Fox News, said that destroying his stockpiles will take at least one year and cost roughly $1 billion.

"I think it is a very complicated operation technically and it needs a lot, a lot of money," he said.

The size of that potential windfall could spark a global gold rush as companies from around the world flood into Damascus hoping to get some of the work.

"I've had discussions with a few contractors already and they're salivating at the prospect of working in Syria," said Paul Walker, an expert in arms control and nonproliferation at Green Cross International. "There are not that many countries that need this type of work."

Once Assad disclosed his sites, contractors would have to separate the chemical substances themselves from the warheads of his rockets, artillery shells or missiles that had been designed to carry them to their targets. Next would come the physical destruction of the chemical weapons themselves, which could be done two ways. The first involves spraying the chemicals themselves into specialized furnaces and then burning them at around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for one or two seconds. Nerve agents like sarin can also be rendered largely harmless by the addition of liquid sodium hydroxide, while mustard gas can be made safe with alkaline water.

Walker, who was one of the first Americans to visit Russia's chemical weapons facilities in the 1990s, said that he would expect giant U.S. firms like Bechtel and Parsons to bid for any Syria-related contracts, particularly if the destruction work was funded by Washington. The companies declined to comment.

The firms might have a hard time winning the work, however, given the depth of the anti-U.S. feelings in the Assad government. Instead, Walker said, Russian companies -- which have been destroying their own countries' weapons stockpiles for decades - could wind up with the business.

Those contracts have the potential to be enormously lucrative. Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles are thought to be disbursed across as many as 50 separate sites. Given the danger of trying to move the weapons in the middle of an active conflict, many non-proliferation experts say that new facilities would need to be built at each chemical weapons facility to destroy all of the toxic substances. Building, staffing and running that many new facilities would be so expensive that foreign companies could earn even more money than Assad has estimated.. Private security firms, which would be hired to protect both international monitors and contractors like Porcari, also stand to earn large sums of money if the destruction work goes forward.

There is one major caveat, though. Working in Syria would be extremely dangerous, and absent a peace deal some contractors might decide that the risks to their personnel outweigh the money they would earn by destroying chemical weapons in the midst of a bloody civil war. Porcari, for instance, says he wouldn't go to Syria while its civil war was still raging.

Even if the fighting subsides, moreover, the logistics of the destruction work would be daunting. Take Libya, where Porcari's firm has been working for years. The government of then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi declared that it possessed chemical weapons in 2004 and promised to get rid of them. It hired Sipsa to build an incinerator at Rabta, its largest stockpile of mustard gas. A key part of the machinery broke down shortly after the plant went into use, however, and Porcari said he wasn't able to send in a replacement before the country erupted in civil war in 2011. More than a year passed before the company finally managed to put in the new piece of equipment.

The delay has slowed Libya's destruction efforts significantly. Nine years after vowing to get rid of its weapons, Libya has destroyed barely half of its total mustard gas stockpile and just 40% of its stores of chemical weapons precursor elements.

Walker and other non-proliferation experts believe that destroying Syria's stockpiles will be much harder than in Libya, and much more expensive. Companies that accept the risks of working in an active warzone stand to be very richly rewarded. The success of the international effort to force Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons will depend, in large part, on how many firms are willing to roll the dice.

Simon Denyer/The Washington Post via Getty Images