President Obama on Thursday called on Congress to fully fund his State Department budget request, saying “we’re going to need Congress as a partner” to help protect Americans serving overseas.
The comments, made during a news conference with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came as the administration tries to shift lawmakers’ focus from mistakes surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, to actions the administration is taking to prevent future incidents.
As congressional Republicans have continued to criticize the administration over security lapses in Benghazi, the White House has faulted lawmakers for cuts in the State Department’s security and construction budget.
After the Benghazi attack, Congress rapidly approved an additional $1.4 billion, transferred from less vital Iraq accounts, to be spent on diplomatic security as part of the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution.
In his 2014 budget, Obama has requested $4 billion in State Department security funding, including $2.2 billion for capital construction. State also has asked for hundreds of additional Marine security guards to be sent to diplomatic facilities abroad, a request the Marine Corps has met with less than full enthusiasm at a time when its overall numbers are being cut.
Obama called on Congress to “provide resources and new authorities to fill all recommendations” made by the Accountability Review Board that investigated the Benghazi incident, including the increased budget and additional Marines.
As the Benghazi controversy continues, Thomas R. Pickering, who chaired the review board, said earlier Thursday that he is willing to testify in an open hearing about the attack but that he will not submit to the closed-door interview requested by the House oversight committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
In a letter to Issa, Pickering and the co-chairman of the Accountability Review Board, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, wrote that Issa had “taken liberal license to call into question the Board’s work” and made charges that deserve to be answered in a public hearing.
The letter was the latest missive in an increasingly testy exchange between the review board and House Republicans, who have charged that the panel failed in its work.
Issa has criticized the board for failing to question former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton or to “examine why State and White House officials pushed a false public narrative of the attack.”
In media appearances, Pickering has said Clinton was not involved in direct decision-
making on the night that terrorists attacked State Department and CIA facilities in Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others.
At a May 8 hearing, three former State Department officials criticized the board’s work as insufficient. Issa said Pickering and Mullen had refused his request to meet with them “informally.” Pickering, a retired senior diplomat, countered that his request had been for public testimony and that the committee had rejected their agreement to appear.
On Monday, Issa sent letters to both asking that they “submit to transcribed interviews in anticipation of a public hearing on the board’s investigation” and again indicated publicly that they had refused to cooperate.
The next day, Pickering wrote that he and Mullen “stand behind the Board’s report and look forward to discussing it in a public hearing.” He said they had asked the State Department to work with the committee to find “a mutually convenient date” for a hearing.
On Wednesday, Issa wrote again with the same request for a pre-hearing interview.
In their Thursday response, Pickering and Mullen wrote to Issa that “requiring such a closed-door proceeding before we testify publicly is an inappropriate precondition. Moreover, notwithstanding what your understanding may be, Ambassador Pickering did not agree to such a closed-door proceeding; his sole focus has been on testifying in an open hearing.”
“If you and he were talking past each other that is unfortunate,” they wrote.
Noting that their report was publicly released and that they had briefed lawmakers months ago, they wrote that “it is surprising that you now maintain that members of the Committee need a closed-door proceeding before being able to ask ‘informed questions’ at a public hearing.”
Pickering and Mullen proposed that a hearing be held May 28, June 3 or a mutually agreeable alternative date.