The Obama administration got some backing Sunday for the way in which it responded as terrorists attacked the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, last September – a night of violence and confusion during which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations, said if he had been at the Pentagon at that time, "Frankly … I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were.”
Republican critics have said a Special Forces team or overflights by fighter aircraft based in Italy might have prevented the US losses or at least frightened off the attackers. Mr. Gates disagrees.
Such actions, he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, “without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on the ground, would have been very dangerous."
"It's sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces," Gates said, referring to morning-after analysis. "The one thing that our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm's way, and there just wasn't time to do that."
Meanwhile, the veteran diplomat who co-chaired the special board which investigated the US situation at Benghazi before and after the attack said he stands by the panel’s decision not to question then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, focusing instead on officials who had direct roles regarding the attack.
"We knew where the responsibility rested," said Pickering, who headed the Accountability and Review Board that investigated the attack, along with retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Speaking of Secretary Clinton’s critics, Pickering said, "They've tried to point a finger at people more senior than where we found the decisions were made.” The former ambassador, who served under Republican and Democratic administrations for some 40 years, appeared on three TV news shows Sunday.
The politics behind attacking or defending Clinton – one of the most popular politicians in the country today – are palpable.
"This has been caught up in the 2016 presidential campaign, this effort to go after Hillary Clinton," said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, on CBS. "They want to bring her in because they think it's a good political show and I think that's unfortunate."
Even without the Clinton factor, the Pickering-Mullen review – it found "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" of the State Department, concluding that security at Benghazi was "grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place" – remains controversial.
The top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, said he wants sworn depositions with Pickering and Mullen. Issa said his panel has not been provided sufficient details on the State Department review, such as a list of everyone the investigators interviewed or a full transcript of those conversations.
Meanwhile, the debate over the “talking points” used to explain Benghazi in the days after the attack remain just as controversial.
ABC News – followed by other news sources – reported Friday on State Department e-mails showing that official talking points were “extensively edited as they evolved from the drafts first written entirely by the CIA to the final version distributed to Congress and to US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice before she appeared on five talk shows the Sunday after that attack.”
“Summaries of White House and State Department emails … show that the State Department had extensive input into the editing of the talking points,” ABC reported.
Republicans describe this as a “cover-up” at the time Obama was running for reelection.
"She had to have been in the loop some way,” McCain told ABC's Martha Raddatz Sunday.
"We need a select committee that interviews everybody," he said. "I don’t know what level of scandal this rises to, but I know it rises to the level where it requires a full and complete ventilation of these facts."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.