Hillary Clinton’s last solo testimony as secretary of state was an intense cross-examination by Republicans about the deadly attack in Libya that marked the low point in her four-year tenure.
More than five hours of questioning before Senate and House committees yesterday were punctuated by politicized exchanges that underscored the partisan divide over the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Inadequate security and initial, conflicting descriptions of the assault became a lightning rod for criticism of the Obama administration’s posture on terrorist threats.
Clinton defended the administration and herself against Republican accusations of negligence and a cover-up, urging lawmakers to focus on what can be done to prevent future attacks, including fully funding diplomatic security. Republicans heaped blame on one of the most popular figures in Washington, who has enjoyed bipartisan support as the nation’s top diplomat and tops polls on possible Democratic contenders in the 2016 presidential race.
At times emotional, at times indignant, Clinton choked up when she described having to greet the caskets of the victims. She stressed that what matters most now are efforts to bring the assailants to justice and to improve security at high-risk posts, not the administration’s early description of events.
“Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” Clinton said, her voice rising in frustration when Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin pressed her over what administration officials said in the days after the attack.
“It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator,” Clinton said. Congress, she said, must also take responsibility, given past cuts in funding requested for diplomatic security.
When Johnson dismissed one of Clinton’s replies as “a good excuse,” she countered, “No, it’s the fact.” She urged Johnson and other lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to read a classified report issued by an independent review board that she said details the uncertainty that persists over precisely what happened.
“We have no doubt they were terrorists, they were militants, they attacked us, they killed our people, but what was going on and why they were doing what they were doing is still unknown,” she said.
Clinton, 65, had to delay her appearance before the committees because of health problems last month that kept her out of the office and briefly hospitalized. Yesterday’s much-anticipated sessions gave lawmakers their first opportunity to question her in public, and Democrats largely offered words of support and appreciation as Republicans took her to task.
Clinton plans to return to Capitol Hill today to introduce Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat nominated to replace her, at his confirmation hearing.
Members of both parties opened by praising Clinton for her service and the almost 1 million miles she logged burnishing the U.S. image abroad. Even so, Republicans called Benghazi a massive failing, and said they held her responsible.
“I would have relieved you of your post” for failure of leadership and “culpability” in the loss of four American lives, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky told Clinton.
Paul called the Benghazi attack the “worst tragedy since 9/11,” referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in which almost 3,000 people died. He said it was “inexcusable” that she didn’t read all the cables from Stevens, who had reported the Libyan mission couldn’t withstand a sustained assault.
“I believe in taking responsibility, and I have done so,” Clinton responded, saying she is moving quickly to make sure the State Department corrects security shortcomings and implements recommendations from the independent review board that she said was removed from “the heat of politics and partisanship.”
Democrats, such as Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, rebuffed Paul’s argument, saying that wrong intelligence about supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction cost far more lives than any failures related to Benghazi.
To call Benghazi the worst tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001, “misunderstands the nature of 4,000 Americans-plus lost over 10 years of war in Iraq fought under false pretenses,” said Senator Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.
The Benghazi attack became a flash point in last year’s presidential campaign. Republicans said President Barack Obama’s administration failed to provide sufficient diplomatic security before the attack, made inadequate efforts to rescue Americans under siege, and misled the public about what happened.
Questions from Republican lawmakers over the handling of the attack in its immediate aftermath prompted Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to withdraw as a potential successor to Clinton. Rice was criticized for saying on television talk shows five days after the attack that the incident began as a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islamic video that was later “hijacked” by militants.
Clinton defended Rice as presenting the information as it was known at that point by the intelligence community. Clinton said the Obama administration didn’t try to mislead the public.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Clinton said.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said Clinton has allowed a “false narrative” to circulate that State Department employees were dismissed for failures related to Benghazi security.
Clinton responded that four individuals were removed from their posts and put on administrative leave based on the independent review panel’s report. Federal statutes don’t permit firing them for the types of failures identified, she told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told Clinton her responses to the Senate panel were “not satisfactory,” and accused the administration of peddling “false answers.”
“We have a disagreement about what did happen and when it happened with respect to explaining the sequence of events,” Clinton replied. She said officials did speak to surviving diplomatic security agents when they returned to the U.S.
“We had no access to surveillance cameras for weeks, which helped to answer a number of questions” later, she said.
The accountability review board’s report, released last month, faulted the State Department for producing a “security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized “systemic failures” in the State Department’s decision-making on security.
Clinton said she hadn’t seen in advance the diplomatic cables that requested heightened security measures in Libya. “I didn’t see those requests, they didn’t come to me,” she said. “I didn’t approve them, I didn’t deny them.”
During the afternoon House hearing, Clinton said there are 1.43 million diplomatic cables a year addressed to the secretary of state, and most do not come to her desk.
While the review board said accountability for security lapses lay at the assistant secretary level, it raised questions about the State Department’s leadership during Clinton’s tenure. The board found the department showed “a lack of proactive leadership and management ability,” although no government employees were found to have violated their duties.
“I take responsibility, and nobody is more committed to getting this right,” Clinton said in her opening remarks yesterday.
Clinton said the State Department has begun implementing all 29 of the review board’s recommendations, which were broken down into 64 “action items.” About 85 percent of those 64 items will be completed by the end of March, she said.
The State Department has begun rethinking how it operates in high-threat areas and the secretary of state will lead an annual “high-threat post review” to better assess risks, Clinton said. Clinton also said security measures in general have been constrained by the “consistent shortfalls” in congressional funding for embassy construction and security.
The review board found no intelligence provided a warning of the attack, in which armed men breached the Benghazi compound’s walls, and there wasn’t enough time for U.S. military forces to have made a difference in responding after the assault began.
Clinton defended the response of State Department personnel to the attack, saying their actions “saved American lives in real time.” Clinton said there will always be risks inherent in the work of the State Department abroad.
Conservative websites and blogs lit up yesterday with attacks on Clinton’s testimony. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh accused her of faking tears when she choked up while talking about the four dead Americans, said she was “butt kissing” ahead of a possible presidential bid.
Clinton has said she is leaving her post to rest and return to her lifelong advocacy for women and children.
Lawmakers from both parties yesterday alluded to her possible return to the political stage.
Representative Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, thanked Clinton for her service and said he wished her “the best in your future endeavors -- mostly,” eliciting laughter from the room.
Clinton was ranked by Americans as the most-admired woman in the world for the 11th consecutive year in a Gallup poll released Dec. 31.