A former U.S. ambassador who led an independent audit of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, for the State Department said he doesn’t see the need for the U.S. House of Representatives to reopen the investigation.
Thomas Pickering also downplayed assertions that a recently disclosed White House memo on messaging about the Benghazi assault that claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans is a smoking gun.
“I’m in a search for, is there a ’there’ there,” Pickering said in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend. “And I haven’t seen any ’there’ there.”
The Accountability Review Board led by Pickering faulted State Department officials for inadequate security at the Benghazi compound in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens. At the same time, the review found no evidence that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally approved any of the security decisions there.
After many hearings, House Republican leaders pointing to new questions have voted to create a special committee on the Benghazi attack. Democrats say this is aimed at undercutting a possible presidential bid by Clinton in 2016 and boosting Republican fundraising.
Pickering, in the interview, also expressed modest optimism about nuclear talks with Iran, favored a shift in U.S. policy to accept more Iranian involvement in resolving the situation in Syria, and urged President Barack Obama’s administration to engage directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the May 25 election in Ukraine.
On Iran, Pickering said: “Both sides seemingly are working at this with good will, something I didn’t expect to see.” At the same time, he cautioned that technical and political impediments remain in limiting centrifuges and nuclear fuel enrichment, security inspections and striking a balance on sanctions that Americans and Iranians could sell to their respective constituencies.
“We will have to give pretty heavily on sanctions relief and they will have to give very heavily, in my view, on the issue of their nuclear program, to make sure that everybody knows that it is civilian, that it stays civilian,” he said.
After a trip to Israel to discuss the Iranian talks, Pickering said, Israelis’ position still “is not compatible with the kind of agreement that we wish to reach.” Yet they may be willing to yield some points if it dials back “what they have considered to be their most dangerous threat” in recent years, the ambassador said.
The U.S., meanwhile, must accept the likelihood that Iran will participate in shaping the future of Syria if Bashar al-Assad leaves power as the U.S. favors, Pickering said.
“Iran, for particular reasons, may have to be out at the beginning of the negotiations,” he said. “But I believe with their influence and their role in the region, they have to be in at the end.”
With Russia’s response to a May 25 election date in Ukraine seen as a test of whether the U.S. and Europe pursue more sanctions, Pickering said Putin may be “tempted” to intervene and “push the envelope as far as he can.”
The U.S. should be “sitting down with Mr. Putin and the Europeans and the Ukrainians” before May 25 to see if Putin has “legitimate needs” that can be met to ensure stability in Ukraine, he said. “You have to do it pretty soon.”
“Until the economy of the Ukraine gets fixed, Mr. Putin is going to enjoy an obvious opportunity to exert extraordinary influence in that area,” Pickering said.
On Benghazi, Pickering said it likely would not have affected his report if he’d had access to a memo by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on managing the administration’s messaging about the attack that was only recently disclosed by the White House. Some Republican critics have described Rhodes’ memo as a smoking gun.
The remarks by Pickering, who served as U.S. ambassador to six nations and the United Nations under Republican and Democratic presidents, underscore questions about whether Republicans’ creation of a House select committee on Benghazi may backfire if it is seen as overtly political in nature.
“We were not there to look at talking points,” Pickering said. “We were not there to look at what I would call post-event political hand-wrestling.”