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House GOP grills Pickering, Mullen on Benghazi

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 1:40 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans investigating last year's deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, badgered Thursday a former U.N. ambassador and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman over their review of the Obama administration's handling of the matter.

GOP members of the House oversight committee asked why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top administration officials weren't questioned during the inquiry overseen by Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen. They chaired an independent panel that reviewed the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Their report last year harshly criticized the State Department for its security posture in the months before militants stormed the Benghazi facility. But House GOP members said it was incomplete and lacked independence.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., called the report by Pickering and Mullen a "whitewash" and asked why Clinton and Tom Donilon, then Obama's national security adviser, weren't interviewed. Pickering said they weren't involved in Benghazi security decisions.

"If the secretary wasn't involved, I must be on another planet," Mica answered.

Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina later asked Mullen if he interviewed President Barack Obama.

Fellow Republican Rep. John Jordan of Ohio accused Mullen of tipping off Clinton's former chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, about the investigation. Rep. Jason Chaffetz argued with Mullen about U.S. or allied military assets that the Utah congressman insisted could have been mobilized during the attack.

Pickering, who was President George H.W. Bush's U.N. envoy, and Mullen, the top U.S. general under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, defended their efforts.

"We had unfettered access to State Department personnel and documents. There were no limitations," Mullen said. "We received the full cooperation of all witnesses and every State Department office. We interviewed everyone we thought it was necessary to interview. We operated independently and were given freedom to pursue the investigation as we deemed necessary."

In advance of the hearing, House Democrats released an 80-page report that concluded the U.S. military wasn't ordered to "stand down" during the Benghazi attack — rejecting a claim repeated as recently as Wednesday by several Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, Mullen's successor as top U.S. general, rejected the stand-down claim at a Senate hearing in June. The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee endorsed that position after a classified hearing with other senior officials in July. Mullen rejected the charge as well multiple times Thursday, saying it would have been impossible for any military assets to make it to Benghazi in time to make a difference.

The Democratic report also defended the conduct of Pickering and Mullen.

However, Democrats found significant fault with the State Department for establishing Benghazi as a "temporary post" without the full security of an embassy or consulate. That could provide at least some ammunition for criticism of Clinton as she gears up for a potential presidential run in 2016, given that she would have been involved in approving a U.S. mission in the largely lawless city after Libya's 2011 civil war.

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