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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript - Benghazi and IRS Scandal

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REP. DARRELL ISSA (R-CA/Chair, Oversight and Government Reform Committee): Well, thanks for having me on and obviously this is an important issue to the American people.

GREGORY: Well-- and let's get into it then because I want to know where you're going. Congressional leaders including yourself are calling on the White House to release more e-mails related to all of the communication and reaction to the Benghazi attacks the very next day. What are these e-mails? What's in them? And, do you think the White House is holding something back?

REP. ISSA: Well, David, there are three distinct areas that haven't been answered. First of all, a full understanding of why urgent request repeatedly for more security before the attacks were denied? We've had statements that it wasn't about money. But at the same time, people are asking for more security, they got less. The British ambassador has two assassination attempts, and yet we keep a facility that was not able to withstand even a few minutes of attack. Then, those seven hours while the attack was going on. Was the response correct? Could it have been better? Why wasn't-- why weren't things at least tried or revved up to be tried? Those are important questions. And then afterwards, how could you change talking point 12 times from what seems to be relatively right to what seems to be completely wrong?

GREGORY: Why don't I start there because in the immediate aftermath, there is both intelligence and there is internal administration communication basically saying that a terrorist group appears to be involved, right? Ansar al-Sharia. There's communication about this in the State Department, but those are removed ultimately from the talking points in preparation for members of Congress and for Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, who appeared here and on other Sunday morning talk shows. And Steve Hayes has reported about this in The Weekly Standard. He writes about some of these changes. The official who changed it at the State Department, The Weekly Standard confirmed was State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, worried that members of Congress would use the talking points to criticize the State Department for "not paying attention to agency warnings" about security in Benghazi. In an attempt to address those concerns, CIA officials cut all references to Ansar al-Sharia and made minor tweaks. But in a follow-up e-mail at 9:24 PM, Nuland wrote that the problem remained that her superior-- she did not say which ones were unhappy. The changes, she wrote, did not "resolve all my issues or those in my building leadership." You suggest others how she's playing politics with the aftermath of this. But Chairman, didn't the CIA-- didn't the intelligence community have the final word on what the accurate talking points would be?

REP. ISSA: No, not at all. If you keep pushing back, you get a first report from the CIA. That's their report. Then you push back, you get a little different. You push back, you get a little different. That's manipulating the CIA to get the-- the truth you want.

GREGORY: CIA can't stand up for itself and say, no, no, these are the facts?

REP. ISSA: The fact is, there was a fact witness. His name was Ambassador Stevens. He said, "Greg, we're under attack," to his number two. That was the definitive statement from the ambassador on the ground before he was murdered. You have a fact witness. And you follow that up with fact witness after fact witness. So, to blame the CIA is a convenient truth. The real truth is, the people who were there in Tripoli and in Benghazi knew this was a terrorist attack from the get-go. That's been said under oath. And that's the reason that we need to know more about how these got changed.

GREGORY: Chairman, my reporting of the immediate aftermath of this talking to administration officials is that CIA Director David Petraeus made it clear when he briefed top officials that there-- that there was a spontaneous element to this, that it was not completely known that this was a terrorist attack right away. You don't give any credence to the notion that there was some fog of war, that there were-- there were conflicting circumstances about what went on here.

REP. ISSA: David Petraeus said what the administration wanted him to say is the indication. Ambassador Pickering heard what the administration wanted to hear. The only under oath people I know about who have said what happened on the ground that day was, in fact, before our committee just on Wednesday. And more importantly, you know, when-- when Face The Nation had Susan Rice saying one thing and the President of Libya saying just the opposite, that should have been a wake-up call, a real wake-up call that there was something wrong because we were effectively calling the President of Libya either incompetent or a liar. Either way, diplomatically, we went down the wrong road. You reconcile with the government that is hosting you before you go on national television and make that kind of claim.

GREGORY: What is-- what is the big picture here? You are saying that administration officials--are these political advisors to the president, are these non-political appointees--bullied the CIA into saying what the polit-- the political advisors in the White House wanted him to say? Is that your charge?

REP. ISSA: David, we're not making charges.

GREGORY: No, no. You just said…

REP. ISSA: David…

GREGORY: …the CIA was-- had to back down from what they originally wanted to say and that David Petraeus said what the White House wanted to say. I mean, those are very serious charges.

REP. ISSA: Those-- those talking points are not the starting talking points, they're the ending talking points. So we're not reaching every conclusion. We are not accusing who changed that. The fact is, we want the facts. We're entitled to the facts. The American people were effectively lied to for a period of about a month. That's important to get right.

GREGORY: And I just want to be clear what you believe the lie was.

REP. ISSA: This was a terrorist attack from the get-go. The attack succeeded very quickly, in no small part because the consulate or the diplomatic facility in Benghazi was denied the kind of support it needed or, quite frankly, the decision to leave which might have been just as good. Either way, they were, in fact, covering up an easy attack that succeeded that was about-- was from the get-go really about a terrorist attack. It was never about a video. So when we look at what we know, the question is, how do we prevent a facility from being under protected, how do we respond better if we have seven hours or more of an attack, and how do we get the truth out? There's three sections all of which the American people are entitled to, and so far, Jay Carney has said a lot of things that aren't believable even to you and the rest of the press. We've had testimony by people under oath that I think are pretty believable, and I know they're accountable for what they say.

GREGORY: Who else do you want to hear from in the days and the weeks ahead?

REP. ISSA: Well, on Monday, I'll be sending Ambassador Pickering a request for a deposition. We're going to want to go through at length how the ARB reached its conclusions, who it interviewed and why we believe there are short…

GREGORY: This is the Accountability Review Board that investigated the attack.

REP. ISSA: Right. I mean, ultimately if that got it right, then we can-- we can put this to a rest. We believe it was insufficient. We believe that it's likely that they did not interview all the people. We have one witness who said I wanted to be interviewed and I wasn't. And, you know, one of the questions that came out of our hearing--Gregory Hicks, the acting ambassador, has not been allowed to look at the classified ARB report even though he is the foremost authority on at least what was happening in Tripoli and what the communication was.

GREGORY: And-- and as you point out Ambassador Pickering. He is here. We'll talk to him in just a minute to get some of his response. I want to add-- have you respond to something else. You know, Former President Bush gave an interview this week in which he talked about e-mail in the executive branch, particularly his own. I want to play that for you and then ask you about it.

(Videotape; April 2, 2013; C-SPAN)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: --learned that I didn't e-mail anybody when I was president. I-- I was fearful of-- of congressional intrusion into my e-mails so-- which is kind of sad really because a lot of history's lost when presidents are nervous about their personal papers being subpoenaed.

(End videotape)

GREGORY: That was a couple of weeks ago. Congressional intrusion was his fear. Now, what we're talking about with regard to Benghazi does not involve a president's e-mail but it involves e-mails in what's called the interagency process. And what your critics have asked is, are you reading into something that is not there, discussions about what happened, about what the various inputs of information are. Are you over reading?

REP. ISSA: Well, we're obviously having a debate in federal court because of Fast and Furious in which the executive branch lied to Congress and then refuses to deliver the in-agency debate about how you perpetrate and continue that lie for months. We have a basic difference of opinion with the executive branch. Not a Republican, not a Democratic, but a basic dis-- difference. If you lie, deceive or cover-up and that's discovered, then those papers behind the scenes become very appropriate to be seen by the coequal branch. Now, I'm one of those people that very strongly supports that the deliberative process in the ordinary course is not something we should be asking for. But when the wheels come off, when in fact, people make a decision to give us something that's false and it's shown to be false and then particularly if there're false statements to Congress, of course we have an-- an obligation to look at it and that does appropriately include those e-mails. And in this case, you've got 12 changes. We have-- Ambassador Pickering has every right and obligation to look at every one of them and we have every obligation to look over his shoulder and see what was independent, what was given. Now, Ambassador Pickering has said he's been given all of the documents and access to all of the people. Well, we haven't and we're the coequal branch, he was simply acting as an appointee of the-- the secretary.

GREGORY: What did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fail to disclose or fail to do that makes her a target for you?

REP. ISSA: Hillary Clinton's not a target. President Obama's not a target. The target is how did we fail three different ways, fail to heed the warnings of an impending attack, fail to respond properly during the attack? At least-- we certainly could have done better and I think everyone knows that. And then failed to get the truth to the American people at a timely fashion.

GREGORY: You don't hold the president and the secretary of state responsible for those failings?

REP. ISSA: It's their administration, but what we have to find out is, how did we not get it right before the attack, how did we not get it better during the attack and how did we not get the truth after. If they're involved in it, of course they should be held responsible. But one of the problems with this ARB report is, it doesn't seem to find anybody at the high level of state department or anyone else to have failed. And I'm going to tell you something. Certainly, Under Secretary Kennedy who has not been held accountable-- three of his people have been held supposedly accountable, but he was getting the facts on a daily basis and one of the questions is, isn't this career professional of 34 years or more-- isn't there some accountability? We certainly think that it needs to be asked.

GREGORY: You've got Republicans talking about this being Watergate. One Republican raising the specter of impeachment. Conservative groups raising money off of the Benghazi story. Are you hurting your own credibility and your own find-- fact-finding mission by politically overreaching?

REP. ISSA: Well, if I was, then I would be. But I'm not. You know, I-- I investigated the mineral management service and made strong recommendations to the Bush administration that it needed real change because it was a dysfunctional agency. And I'm sad that I didn't stay on top of it more tenaciously because ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico got filled with oil because that agency wasn't doing enough of its job of making sure the oil companies did their job. So I can never again look at something where four men died and I believe needlessly and then say, well, I'm going to just say they've taken care of it, it won't happen again. No. Congress has an obligation to say, what did you do to make sure it doesn't happen again? And Charlene Lamb and other low-ranking people being reassigned to other jobs. That's not going to prevent these three separate mistakes from happening again.

GREGORY: The issue of security that you talk about, how do we prevent this from happening again? The reality chairman, as you know, is it it's happened throughout our recent history. Just look at some of the attacks on diplomatic compounds or facilities or U.S. interests over the years. You go back…

REP. ISSA: You know, Gregory Hicks, in fact, testified to what happened in Bahrain under his watch.

GREGORY: Hold on, let me just go through…

REP. ISSA: How in fact they prepared for a possible attack and they survived the attack even though they lost a few cars…

(Cross talk)

GREGORY: But look-- but look at these attacks on U.S. interest spanning Republican and Democratic administrations including President Bush's administration. Why is there not more of an effort to beef up security after these attacks happen and even, you-- you know, even before this happened in Benghazi?

REP. ISSA: David…

GREGORY: And isn't this Congress's job to spend the money to beef up security?

REP. ISSA: David, I-- well, first of all, money is spent by the-- the secretary of state and her people. We appropriate the money. I have spent over 12 years both on the Intelligence Committee and on the Foreign Affairs Committee and now on the Oversight Committee. I visited countless embassies and consulates. I've seen both behind the scenes on the Intelligence Committee and the overt actions of what we do. And we do a great deal. And we do it well. But in areas of high risk, in areas like North Africa and for that matter, Sub-Saharan Africa, we're not really prepared for the kind of-- of attacks we're getting. We haven't been since the-- the two bombings of our embassies and then the Cole. So can we do better? Yes. Must we do better? Yes. But when you have clear signs and you have career professionals asking for more security and they're second-guessed, not for financial reasons, but for reasons of apparently wanting a normalization, an appearance of normal, that has to be asked. Why wouldn't you let the career professionals have their way when they say here's a risk, they tried to kill the ambassador, the British ambassador twice. They blew up the wall at this very facility in Benghazi two separate times, one they actually breached it, and yet security was cut, not increased. That's not about the broad picture. It's about this example of what went wrong.

GREGORY: But do you need a select committee on-- on something like this? Something like (Unintelligible) or is your-- your investigation sufficient here?

REP. ISSA: You know, let's not blow things out of proportion. This is a failure, it needs to be investigated. Our committee can investigate. Now, Ambassador Pickering, his people and he refused to come before our committee that…

AMB. THOMAS PICKERING (Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs/Chair, Accountability Review Board on Benghazi): That is not true.

GREGORY: All right. We're-- we're going to get to Ambassador Pickering.

REP. ISSA: We have-- we have it in-- we have it in writing, we have White House correspondence. It may not have been the Ambassador's decision but it was the White House decision. That has been reversed. We're inviting him on Monday along with Admiral Mullen to come, to go through, with his papers, a private deposition so we can get the facts in a nonpartisan way.

GREGORY: Right.

REP. ISSA: We'll have Republicans and Democratic…

GREGORY: Well, all right. Ambassador Pickering, you-- you just jumped in here. You're willing to appear?

AMB. PICKERING: Of course. I've said the day before the hearings, I was willing to appear to come to the very hearings that he disclu-- he excluded me from. The White House told me back that he said…

REP. ISSA: One second. Please-- please don't tell me I excluded you.
AMB. PICKERING: Well, the-- the majority was-- we were told the majority said I was not welcomed at that hearing. I could come at some other time.

REP. ISSA: Well, as-- as the ambassador just said, the day before the hearing, if the White House said we'd like to have him, there's a procedure. He could have been the Democratic witness. And we would have allowed him. The Democrats requested no witness. The fact is, we don't want to have some sort of a stage show. We had fact witnesses. They testified. We have the Ambassador and-- and Admiral Mullen who conducted and oversaw the ARB. We're inviting them on Monday. We'll go through, not in front of the public but-- but in a nonpartisan way questions and answers and then obviously…

GREGORY: All right.

REP. ISSA: …a hearing to follow at an appropriate time. I'm delighted to have a long-serving career diplomat willing to come before us. I don't think it was his decision to say no. But we were told no until just before the hearing

GREGORY: All right. Well, let me-- let me do this. Chairman, stick around for just a minute because I also want to ask you about this IRS story. But I want to stay on this theme. Ambassador Pickering, you led this investigation along with Admiral Mullen. And the criticism about this investigation is, it didn't go far enough. You didn't specifically interview Secretary of State Clinton. You didn't probe into what she did or did not do in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. You focused on lower level officials and you didn't sufficiently address the very point that the chairman brings up, which is why wasn't there sufficient address to the fact that there was a deteriorating security situation in Benghazi?

AMB. PICKERING: Let me say that I hope the chairman has read our report. Our report has 29 recommendations. The bulk of them concern the insufficiency of the State Department's preparation of that post to deal with the security challenges. I don't think that there is any other explanation. And I can't believe that in fact, he still sits here and makes those charges. The second issue he raised was the seven hours. We looked into this extensively with the military. Admiral Mullen himself…

GREGORY: Seven hours. Just talk about-- you're talking about the night of the attacks?

AMB. PICKERING: The night of the attack…

GREGORY: Yeah.

AMB. PICKERING: …in Benghazi. And Admiral Mullen and I and all the other members of the board concluded, after the testimony in which we interviewed many people, that there was no way that any military activity could have been put in place to deal with that particular question. He…

GREGORY: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and others have said nobody could have gotten there in time.

AMB. PICKERING: General Dempsey said so, Admiral Mullen, the retired chairman said so.

GREGORY: But were you not critical of the fact that there was no contingency planning of a…

AMB. PICKERING: There was…

GREGORY: …of a chaotic situation in North Africa.

AMB. PICKERING: …there was contingency planning, David, and that contingency planning helped. The contingency planning involved the annex coming to help the people who were under attack at the mission. And it was fairly clear that that particular set of activities helped a great deal. We may have had more people killed if that hadn't happened. We've been told that the only witnesses that are of any value are people in Tripoli. We interviewed everybody still alive on the ground who was at the U.S. mission that night.

REP. ISSA: Well, and that-- ambassador…

AMB. PICKERING: And I have...

REP. ISSA: …that's an important point. We've been denied even the names of those individuals. The fact is, our committee wanted to speak to the individuals from Benghazi. They were neither encouraged nor produced nor even their names made available to us. Look, two of the most respected career people I know, the Ambassador and Admiral Mullen, who I've-- I've worked with much more closely than the Ambassador, I respect them. We have an obligation to look for any of the inconsistencies, and yes, I understand that in seven hours, they look back and say we couldn't have saved those men. The question-- one of the questions is, in hour one, what orders were given to begin the process? Who was put on alert? Who was asked? This could have gone on like Tehran. This could have gone on for weeks or months. So there's a lot of those questions. All we're really asking is, why is it that the Ambassador and the Admiral reached a conclusion? We have their output; their unclassified and classified output.

GREGORY: Right. Let's have the Ambassador-- let's have the Ambassador respond to that.

AMB. PICKERING: You also have access to the classified testimony.

REP. ISSA: Well, actually…

GREGORY: But let's-- let's-- I want-- but let's…

REP. ISSA: Ambassador, we've-- we've gotten the-- we've got the classified report but we don't have any of the interviews you did. We don't have even the-- we don't even have the list of everyone you interviewed. So…

AMB. PICKERING: The list of interview I believe is in the classified report…

(Cross talk)

GREGORY: All right. I-- I want to get to a larger picture though. Excuse me-- excuse me, Ambassador. I want to come back to this fundamental question.

REP. ISSA: Yeah, please.

GREGORY: Did you not pay sufficient attention to-- and time with the secretary of state?

AMB. PICKERING: I believe we did. We had a session with the secretary. It took place very near the end of the report. It took place when we had preliminary judgments about who made the decisions, where they were made, and by whom they were reviewed. We felt that that was more than sufficient for the preponderance of evidence that we had collected to make our decisions and you know that our decisions was two of those people should be separated from their jobs. Two others failed in their performance.

GREGORY: The press secretary to the president Jay Carney said back in November, he-- he talked about how changes were made, who made changes to these talking points prepared for Congress and for Ambassador Rice. This is what he said back on November 28th.

(Videotape; November 28, 2012)

MR. JAY CARNEY (White House Press Secretary): The White House and State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two-- these two institutions were changing the word consulate to diplomatic facility because consulate was inaccurate. Those talking points originated from the intelligence community. They reflected the IC's best assessments of what they thought had happened.

(End videotape)

GREGORY: We know that's not accurate. We know that in fact, the State Department, Victoria Nuland, was involved in removing from the talking points previous warnings about security and references to a terrorist group, an extremist group, being involved in the attack based on what was being reported on the ground and by intelligence. Is the administration guilty of playing politics with terrorism?

AMB. PICKERING: With full respect, the Accountability Review Board was there to look at the question of security. We did not examine talking points after the fact. It was not (Unintelligible).

GREGORY: All right. I'm going to end on this point which is about the IRS…

REP. ISSA: Yes.

GREGORY: …and this revelation. They have apologized for this. What more would you like to see? Are you satisfied with the apology?

REP. ISSA: This-- this…

GREGORY: That the targeting conservative groups in an election year for tax exempt status.

REP. ISSA: Well, you said it all. They targeted conservatives for tax exempt status, but the bottom line is they used key words to go after conservatives. This is something you have to institute changes to make sure it doesn't happen again. There has to be accountability for the people who did it. And quite frankly, up until a few days ago, there's got to be accountability for people who were telling lies about it being done. And-- and lastly, to be honest, one of the most offensive parts is, my committee and Jim-- Jim Jordan and I instigated this investigation, got the IG to do the investigation, before the IG's report comes to the public or to Congress as required by law, it's leaked by the IRS to try to spin the output. This mea culpa is not an honest one. The honest one is, in fact, let's see the-- the IG report, let's go through it. And then let's-- just like the Ambassador said on the 29 changes, which we agree with, let's see what the instituted changes need to be to make this not happen again.

GREGORY: All right. Chairman Issa, Ambassador Pickering…

AMB. PICKERING: Thank you.

GREGORY: …this debate will go on. Thank you both very much for being here.

REP. ISSA: Thank you, David.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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