Why Darrell Issa Might Want to Cancel His Latest Benghazi Hearing

Alex Seitz-Wald
National Journal

Republicans are holding no less than three hearings this week on the 2012 Benghazi attack, "to examine the Administration's inadequate response," as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday (the same day, by the way, that Speaker John Boehner slammed the president for engaging in partisanship on the day of the Navy Yard shooting).

They're the latest in a long series of hearings and interviews investigating the attack, which Democrats have dismissed as nothing more than a fishing expedition into a "phony" scandal, but Thursday's hearing will be special. Lawmakers will finally get to hear from Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, the two retired officials who led the government's internal report on the matter. Getting Mullen and Pickering into the hot seat has taken five months of negotiation and even a subpoena, so they must be hiding something good, right?

Maybe not. We have a pretty clear idea of what the two former officials might say, since they sat with congressional investigators for behind-closed-doors interviews in June. We finally got to see the 355 pages of transcribed testimony this week (read Mullen's and Pickering's here), but they've so far gone largely unnoticed. A review suggests that House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and other Republicans will find no smoking guns in Thursday's hearing.

For instance, there's the question of whether the administration did everything it possibly could have to respond to the attack once it started. Last month, Issa said in a radio interview that the administration hasn't explained why it didn't send aircraft, and suggested that the president and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did not "actually care about people in harm's way as they're being attacked by al Qaeda elements."

Mullen, however, told congressional investigators two months earlier there was simply nothing more the U.S. military could have done. "[We] looked at every single U.S. military asset that was there, and what it possibly could have done, whether it could have moved or not. And it was in that interaction that I concluded, after a detailed understanding of what had happened that night, that from outside Libya, that we'd done everything possible that we could," the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explained.

His interlocutor followed up: "So your conclusion based on your experience, 40 years of experience, is that the military and the U.S. Government did everything that they could to respond to the attacks?" Mullen responded, simply: "Yes."

Why didn't the U.S. send an "F-16 at low altitude [to] fly over those people who were attacking our consulate," as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked in May on ABC's This Week? Because, Mullen told investigators, the F-16 would need be refueled at least twice, and that was impossible at the time. The "physics of it, the reality of it, it just wasn't going to happen for 12 to 20 hours," he said.

He added that just because forces weren't able to get there in time doesn't mean they weren't trying. "It does not seem to be, at least from a public standpoint, widely understood, we moved a lot of forces that night," he told investigators.

What about the notion that Mullen and Pickering's review wasn't independent, as many Republicans have claimed? Did he have full access? Did he look at everyone? "We had the authority to, within the scope of the tasking, to do just about anything that we thought was important," he said. "We interviewed everyone that we thought was relevant … the most important descriptive characteristic of it is that it would be independent."

What about Clinton? "In the end there was no official, including the secretary of state, whose involvement wasn't reviewed," he replied. "Everybody was on the table."

"We found no evidence whatsoever that [Clinton] was involved in security decisions" about the compound in Benghazi, Mullen told investigators. "She did not have such a role," Pickering added. A report issued by Issa's office this week mentions Clinton's name 33 times.

And those are just some of the more serious lingering questions about the attack, not the more fanciful ones like the notion that officials told special operators in country to "stand down." (On that one, here's the Republican House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon: "Contrary to news reports, [Lieutenant Colonel S.E.] Gibson was not ordered to 'stand down' by higher command authorities ... he would not have been able to get to Benghazi in time to make a difference.")

Of course, it's possible that Mullen and Pickering are lying, but that gets us into the realm of conspiracy theory, which is unfortunately where so much of the conversation around Benghazi has ended up. As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote a few days ago, instead of focusing on important questions, "the Benghazi scandal-seekers are determined to link Hillary Clinton" to the attack, and are getting "distracted by wild theories."

Given that fact, no amount of testimony or hearings will likely lead to a real stand down order issued on Benghazi.