Just a day before Hillary Clinton's much-anticipated appearance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Democrats on the committee released a transcript of the Sept. 3 testimony of Cheryl Mills, Clinton's chief of staff during her time as secretary of state.
If the 307 pages of testimony by one of her closest confidantes provide any roadmap to the committee's interrogation of Clinton, the former secretary of state can expect to be grilled about security around American installations in the days leading up to the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks in Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens; about whether the State Department attempted to manage employees' statements to Congress and the press in the days following the fatalities; and about her extensive e-mail correspondence with Sidney Blumenthal, a foreign policy freelancer and longtime associate of Clinton whom the White House banned from employment at the State Department.
Mills, a longtime Clinton confidante who helped defend President Bill Clinton during the House impeachment proceedings over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, also defended his wife in her behind-closed-doors appearance to the committee. She insisted that when Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who visited Libya in the weeks following the attack to investigate it, the State Department wanted lawyers to be on hand during his interviews “to create comfort for those who felt like they were going to be blamed for losing an ambassador.” Gregory Hicks, the acting head of the mission in the wake of the Benghazi attacks, said the department told him and others not to speak to Chaffetz, according to committee staff members' questions during Mills' testimony. She denied that.
During her testimony, Mills also denied claims by former State Department staffer Ray Maxwell that Clinton aides “were part of an operation to 'separate' damaging documents before they were turned over to the Accountability Review Board investigating security lapses surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks,” according to his interview with the conservative Daily Signal website, and that Mills ran into him at a weekend session of the operation and questioned his presence. “I never had an encounter with Ray Maxwell around Benghazi,” she said.
Mills also spoke about Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs who served as vice chairman of the ARB. He at one point called Mills to tell her that one witness scheduled to go before a congressional investigation would not “reflect well on the Department,” according to questions. Mills said she didn't remember the call but “had no reason to believe that” Mullen was wrong and believed his reservations might have had to do with the witness's ability to give accurate or clear testimony. While she denied that she or Clinton tried to influence its conclusions, Mills acknowledged that she read a draft of the ARB report before publication and suggested edits. “I certainly made recommendations for places where I thought there were inaccuracies or misstatements,” she testified.
Mills said she did not recall warning Clinton against the use of private e-mail to conduct business as secretary of state. “Quite candidly, I don't know that I really thought much about e-mail at the time,” she told the committee. She acknowledged that her attitude changed after two State Department officials, one a longtime aide to President Barack Obama and one a longtime aide to Secretary of State John Kerry, Clinton's successor, when they were gathering e-mail correspondence from past secretaries of state. “The questions that they were posing related to matters that they believed might be the subject of media inquiries,” she said. The former chief of staff went on to explain how she and longtime Clinton lawyer David Kendall directed the process of separating Clinton's personal e-mails (a category Mills said included correspondence from Clinton's husband) from those that needed to go to the State Department to comply with federal records requirements.
Mills also said she did not receive all of the memos sent to Clinton's personal account by Blumenthal, a friend who did not work for the State Department but often passed along what he claimed was intelligence on diplomatic situations, including in Libya. “I learned in the process how prolific he was and realized I probably wasn’t receiving a lot of them,” she said. She acknowledged that Clinton has proposed giving Blumenthal a post at the State Department but was overruled by the White House, though Mills could not remember by whom. “Unfortunately, there are a number of non-fans of Sidney Blumenthal so it could have been any number of people,” she said.
Day of the Attack
Mills's questioners devoted s to trying to establish Clinton's actions in the hours and days after they found out about the attack.
Upon learning in the late afternoon that the attack had begun, Clinton and top aides on the seventh floor of the State Department “all immediately tried to do the same thing: Learn more,” Mills said They then tried to figure out what support they could offer and extend it. “She was incredibly concerned,” Mills said of her boss.
The chief of staff tried to rebut contentions by some conservatives that Clinton was unconcerned, worked against providing support, or misled the public about what she knew about the attack—all ideas that previous investigations have rejected. She said Clinton spoke to General David Petraeus and leaders in Libya and unexpectedly appeared on a staff call, saying, “These are our people on the ground. Where else would I be?”
Mills said that, ultimately, the events were personal and weighed on Clinton. “I think she was devastated,” Mills said.
But during her account to the committee Mills often said she did not remember the details of the day, including who appeared or what was discussed during an evening teleconference with multiple agencies. She admitted to her own “confusion,” for instance, about the role of the department's Foreign Emergency Response Team, which was intended to handle terrorist incidents.
Mills said she believed that in the hours and days after the attack some in the State Department communicated erroneously it had grown spontaneously out of a protest because other embassies had been the targets of protest over a film that criticized Islam and the Prophet Muhammed.
“I’m not sure if we did it perfectly every time but we did our best to indicate that the information was fluid,” she said.
The release of Mills's testimony prompted sharp responses from Clinton critics. “There are remarkable lapses of memory,” said Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative-leaning group Judicial Watch, which has repeatedly sued the State Department for documents and publicized versions of events at odds with official accounts. “I think what’s notable is Ms. Mills’s inability to give any specifics about aide sought from the military in response to the attack.”
He said the testimony regarding the department Accountability Review Board’s report on the attack “further confirms that the process was rigged.”
Republicans on the committee slammed the release.
“Once again, Democrats on the Select Committee demonstrate that for them, this is all about Hillary Clinton, and not about the four brave Americans who were killed by terrorists in Benghazi,” a spokesman for the Republicans on the committee, Jamal Ware, said.