Republicans Selectively Leak Cheryl Mills Interview Details to Resuscitate Issa Conspiracy Theory Debunked Two Years Ago
Prior to her interview yesterday with the Benghazi Select Committee, former State Department Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills requested that the proceeding be conducted in public to avoid inaccurate information being leaked out of context to attack her for political reasons.
Select Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy rejected her request, stating during a stand-up with press that the transcript of Ms. Mills’ interview would be safeguarded as if it were “classified.”
Within minutes of making that statement, Republicans began leaking inaccurate information about the interview out of context to attack Ms. Mills for political reasons—exactly as she feared.
For example, Politico ran a story on the front page of its website entitled, “What Cheryl Mills Told Benghazi Investigators.” Relying on multiple anonymous Republican sources, Politico led with the claim that “one of the biggest surprises” from the interview was that Ms. Mills reviewed the report by the Accountability Review Board (ARB) and made suggestions to it. According to an unnamed GOP source, this supposedly new revelation was “raising alarms on the right.” Another Republican source told Politico that this somehow “call[s] into question the ‘independence’” of the report’s conclusions.
The problem is that this claim was already known—and debunked—two years earlier.
On June 4, 2013, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the Chairman of the ARB who served with distinction under both Republican and Democratic Administrations, testified before the Oversight Committee in a sworn deposition that was made public two years ago.
He explained then that the ARB provided a draft of the report to the Secretary’s office to ensure “the accuracy and the focus of our recommendations” before they were released. He also testified then that neither Secretary Clinton nor Ms. Mills tried to influence the outcome of the ARB’s findings in any way and had no editing rights.
In fact, an investigation by the State Department Inspector General issued in September 2013 concluded:
“ARB members were conscious of the need to protect their impartiality by limiting their contact with senior managers of the Department during the process. Former members unanimously told OIG team that they encountered no attempts to impede, influence, or interfere with their work at any time or on any level.”
The Government Accountability Office, Inspectors General, and other investigative entities routinely provide agencies under review an opportunity to respond to reports to ensure that they are accurate before they are publicly released.
Yet none of this information was mentioned by Republicans or in the Politico story.
Benghazi Select Committee Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings issued the following statement in response to these events:
“The recent actions of the Select Committee are very disappointing. Essentially, the Republican approach to the Benghazi investigation has become Issa 2.0. Republicans are leaking inaccurate information out of context in an effort to attack Ms. Mills and Secretary Clinton for political reasons. In this case, they are peddling an old conspiracy theory that was debunked more than two years ago. They had access to Ambassador Pickering’s deposition transcript, so the only way they can claim their concern is ‘new’ is if they never read it or they simply ignored it in a desperate effort to resuscitate a conspiracy theory that was debunked under Chairman Issa. Given the proliferation of inaccurate Republican leaks, the entire transcript of Ms. Mills’ interview should be released as soon as possible.”
A full copy of Ambassador Pickering’s deposition transcript is posted here, and the key excerpts are set forth below:
Q: And did you receive any feedback from the Secretary’s staff about how the Secretary would like the report to look?
A: I did not. Through the staff, with respect to a document we made available to the Secretary prior to our discussion meeting with them. I believe subsequent to the discussion meeting they provided us with three or four or five thoughts that they would like us to consider. They had no editorial rights. And we reviewed those, all of us at the end, and some we thought were acceptable and some we thought were not acceptable.
Q: Maybe you said it this morning, but do you know who at the State Department had a chance to review the draft before it went final?
A: No. It went to the Secretary’s chief of staff, but I don’t know beyond that.
Q: And when—
A: And it was, to the best of my knowledge and belief, the findings and recommendations, not the entire report.
Q: Not the report?
A: And it was a draft at a somewhat early stage.
Q: Was that the only draft that was shared?
A: I’m not sure, but I believe it was, yeah. This was done staff to staff.
Q: Okay. And that was with Cheryl Mills?
Q: And you subsequently had an in-person meeting with her to discuss some of that?
A: No. We had only the meeting with the Secretary, which she attended, and there was no discussion of that issue at the meeting which the Secretary attended.
Q: So to the extent the feedback was communicated, was that staff to staff, or was that—
A: Staff to staff.
A: But it was very clear that we were responsible for the draft; that we were not according editing rights, but we were certainly willing to look at concerns and issues, particularly if they help us to sharpen the accuracy and the focus of our recommendations.
Q: And did you, either when you met with the Secretary—well, when you met with the Secretary, did she try to influence the outcome of the ARB’s findings in any way?
Q: What about her staff Ms. Mills?
Q: And you had said that they did not have editing rights, but that you were open to listening to their suggestions?
A: Yes, as we were with other people who reviewed the report.