Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, testifying before Congress on the September attacks in Libya that killed four Americans, warned today that the United States must not retreat from hazardous diplomatic posts overseas.
“We have come a long way in the past four years, and we cannot afford to retreat now,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened.”
Clinton’s voice broke moments later when she told the committee her commitment to the safety of diplomats is more than professional.
“It’s personal,” she said, describing the sight of the four returning coffins and the grieving families there to receive them.
It was an uncharacteristic display of emotion for Clinton, who is usually collected and reserved in public.
In one of her last duties as America’s top diplomat, Clinton went to Capitol Hill on Wedneday to testify in both houses of Congress and answer questions about the attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya. The attacks killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans and exposed lapses in judgment and security at the State Department.
Clinton’s congressional testimony is a politically charged denouement to a well-regarded tenure. Congressional Republicans wanted to question Clinton about the Obama administration’s shifting explanation for the attacks on Sept. 11 and 12, and whether those varied scenarios amounted to a cover-up.
In pointed questioning at a hearing that lasted about 2 1/2 hours, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the State Department was “woefully unprepared” for developments in North Africa, and he charged that the tragedy in Benghazi “symbolizes the woeful unpreparedness” that the United States experienced.
Clinton replied that the Arab Spring revolts that swept the Middle East and North Africa were not predicted. “This is a great opportunity, as well as a serious threat to our country,” she said of the upheaval that persists across the region. “I hope we seize the opportunity.” She said it would not be easy because the countries have no experience of democracy.
“We now face a spreading jihadist threat,” Clinton said. Many al-Qaeda operatives have been driven out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, she said. But she added: “We have to recognize this is a global movement.” U.S. forces can kill its leaders, but until democracy grows in the region, “we’re going to be faced with this level of instability,” she said.
Asked about reports about a link between the Benghazi attacks and an assault last week on a natural gas complex in Algeria near the border with Libya, Clinton said, “We don’t have any way to confirm it as yet.”
She said later that “there’s no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya” that were looted from armories after the fall of Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
In a testy exchange with Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.), Clinton pounded the witness table as she strongly defended Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, against his charge of “purposely misleading the American public” about events leading up to the Benghazi attacks. Rice said in television interviews five days after the attacks that they grew out of a spontaneous protest, rather than a planned terrorist operation.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Clinton said of Johnson’s accusation. “The fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information.”
Clinton told Johnson he was wrong and that he was missing the point with a narrow focus on the wording of the script Rice used. With four Americans dead, Clinton said angrily, “what difference at this point does it make?”
She said Rice related talking points developed by the intelligence community. Questions remain even today, she said, and it is “less important” to determine what motivated the attackers “than to find them and bring them to justice.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Clinton that “your answers are not satisfactory to me.” He said that “numerous warnings” about militant activity in Libya were not addressed and that the State Department’s desire for a “soft footprint” in the country “was to some degree responsible for what took place.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, came to Rice’s defense, asking senators to reflect on five words: “Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.” Americans were told by numerous officials of the George W. Bush administration that those weapons “justified a war,” he said, and they turned out not to exist.
Durbin also pointed out that Clinton has asked Congress for authority to transfer existing funds to protect U.S. diplomats, “and you have been refused by the House of Representatives.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) accused Clinton of “a failure of leadership” that cost American lives. If he had been president, “I would have relieved you of your post,” he said. “I think it’s inexcusable.” He called the Benghazi assault “the worst tragedy” to befall the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Although the deaths in Benghazi, Libya, have faded from the headlines, the stakes for Clinton remain high. She is widely considered a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, and Benghazi could be a black mark. The televised hearings represented a rare opportunity for Republicans to put her on the spot.
Hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee were delayed by Clinton’s unusual sick leave and hospitalization for a blood clot in her head.
Clinton returned to work this month after a month away, but she has had relatively few public appearances. Her entrance to President Obama’s inauguration Monday, on the arm of former President Bill Clinton, was many Americans’ first view of Clinton since her illness.
Republicans insisted that Clinton appear in person to describe what her department is doing to address severe shortfalls identified by an independent audit and threatened to hold up confirmation of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as her successor until she did so.
In her prepared testimony, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she takes responsibility for protecting diplomats and other employees abroad. “Nobody is more committed to getting this right,” she said in her written remarks. “I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure.”
The secretary sought to address Republican criticisms of the administration’s initial response to the attacks. She reminded the panel that the morning of Sept. 12, she said “heavily armed militants assaulted our compound.” And she said she stood with President Obama that day when he described the episode as “an act of terror.”
In response to criticism from the Accountability Review Board, Clinton said a department task force has translated the 29 recommendations for improving security into 64 specific “action items” and that 85 percent of those items are expected to be completed by the end of March.
“We are taking a top-to-bottom look, and rethinking how we make decisions on where, when, and how are people operate in high-threat areas, and how we respond to threats and crises,” she said.
Republicans have suggested that the administration withheld documents or witnesses from Congress or investigators and have condemned what they view as a lack of progress investigating the deaths of Stevens, diplomat Sean Smith and CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said he appreciated Clinton’s willingness to testify. “It is important to learn all we can about what happened in Benghazi because at the end of the day, it could happen again,” Royce said in a statement. “After all, al-Qaeda and associated groups plan to attack over and over again, as we saw most recently in Algeria.”
Clinton pledged before Wednesday’s hearings to adopt all of the 29 recommendations from the independent Accountability Review Board, which include changes to the way diplomatic facilities in dangerous areas would be built and staffed.
“She’s been overseeing that work. She’s been pushing it along,” with the goal of beginning work on each of the agenda items before she leaves office, Nuland said.
One senior State Department manager resigned and three others were disciplined. Those targeted were well below Clinton and her senior aides, and some Republicans are expected to question whether blame went high enough up the bureaucratic ladder.
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