The State Department announced on Thursday that it had no involvement in the decision of retired diplomat Thomas Pickering to meet in a closed session of the House Oversight Committee with Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). Pickering, along with former Joint Chiefs Chair Mike Mullen co-chaired the Accountability Review Board that investigated the security failures surrounding the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya in September of last year.
The Associated Press reported that Representative Issa lifted his previous subpoena in exchange for testifying before the Oversight Committee in a closed session. State Department Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell claimed Pickering’s “viewpoint” remains that he is still under a congressional subpoena and is compelled to testify before the committee.
Matt Lee from the Associated Press pointed out “the whole point of [Representative Issa’s] statement yesterday was that [Pickering] had voluntarily agreed to this private deposition.” Ventrell said as of “half an hour” before the briefing, that was the latest information he had on Pickering’s viewpoint.
The closed-door committee hearing is scheduled for June 3rd. A public hearing has yet to be scheduled.
Read the transcript and watch the exchange below:
QUESTION: On Benghazi. Did the State Department have any involvement with Ambassador Pickering deciding to – agreeing to a private interview with Representative Issa?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, just to say, as you know, that Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen have been clear about their willingness to testify publicly – that’s something that they’ve said previously before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – in order to directly answer questions regarding the ARB procedures, findings, and recommendations. We understand that Ambassador Pickering continues to consider himself to be under subpoena and will appear in accordance with that compulsory obligation for a deposition.
We further understand that counsel for Ambassador Pickering and the committee have agreed upon a date for the deposition of June 3rd. And finally, we understand the fact that a deposition has been scheduled does not preclude future discussions between Ambassador Pickering’s counsel and the committee about the circumstances and rules for his appearance. So that’s something that Ambassador Pickering and his outside counsel have been discussing with the committee directly.
QUESTION: So the State Department has no involvement?
MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, this is somebody who has private counsel. He certainly was in his capacity in chairing the ARB, did that work inside here inside the State Department, but he has retained private counsel in this matter.
QUESTION: Has there been any further conversations with lawmakers between the State Department about future Benghazi hearings?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of a status update in terms of back and forth on future hearings. There is correspondence that goes back and forth with us on the Hill, but I’m not aware of any future hearings at this point.
QUESTION: Just the other thing, on the initial question, you said that Ambassador Pickering considers himself still to be the subject of a subpoena. Because my understanding of Representative Issa’s statement yesterday was that he had lifted the subpoena. Maybe I’m wrong.
MR. VENTRELL: I believe that is Ambassador Pickering’s view at this point still.
QUESTION: Well, why would he have that view if Representative Issa said the subpoena no longer exists?
MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if that’s because it hasn’t formally been lifted or they’re still working out the details of the June 3rd appearance, but my understanding is that he continues to consider himself to be under subpoena and will appear in accordance with that compulsory obligation to appear.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the whole point of the statement yesterday was that he had voluntarily agreed to this private deposition.
QUESTION: And the subpoena was lifted.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, these are the views that have been expressed and that I understand, as of coming down here about half an hour ago. I can check again, but this was what I understood to be –
QUESTION: Okay. I was just curious as to why he would think that he was still under the subject of a subpoena when the subpoena has been lifted. And if he – if, in fact, he has not voluntarily – if he has not voluntarily agreed, if he’s not – if he is doing this only because he’s being – he thinks he’s being compelled to by subpoena, then I would be interested to know why, since that doesn’t really comport with the facts – or with the statement that Representative Issa’s office gave out yesterday. And then – so if you could check on that.
MR. VENTRELL: I’d be happy to check in on it.
QUESTION: Thanks. And then the last one is, my understanding was that this deposition, whenever it takes – you say it’s scheduled for June 3rd – does not – that there will be an open hearing at some point at which Ambassador Pickering will appear. Is that part of the agreement for him to appear in private was that he would then get the chance to appear in public? And if so, has that hearing been scheduled, or is that entirely up to the committee?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we support Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen’s willingness to appear in public hearings and clarify the record, and we hope they’ll be given that opportunity. But in the meantime, our understanding is that Chairman Issa has still opted for a compulsory deposition that is not public. So this is the information I had as of just moments ago.
QUESTION: So the answer to my question is no, it hasn’t been – the public hearing has not been scheduled.
MR. VENTRELL: Not that we’re aware of.
QUESTION: But is that entirely within the purview of the committee, or do you – or does the – Ambassador Pickering or the Department have anything to do with that?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, we support them having the opportunity to testify in public, but that would be under the purview of the committee.