Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday, offering testimony on the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which she put her focus on the diplomatic security upgrades and other changes she has ordered since the tragedy.
In morning testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Clinton tried to keep her emphasis on how the US can improve diplomatic security in the future, while Republican senators wanted answers on Benghazi – why it was allowed to happen, what the Obama administration knew when, and why administration officials persisted so long in calling the terrorist attack the tragic outcome of a spontaneous demonstration.
The result was a sometimes testy, even fiery interchange in which Clinton at one point threw up her hands and questioned the relevance of the Republican hammering on how the administration characterized the attack. At another point Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky told Clinton that, were he president, he would have fired her over the attack.
Clinton was also appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday afternoon.
Clinton’s testimony was closely watched in part because some Republican senators have said they would not be prepared to vote on the nomination of Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts to replace Clinton until they received satisfactory answers from the Obama administration on Benghazi. Beyond that, perceptions of how Clinton handles the hearings are expected to follow her as she exits the State Department – influencing her record as secretary of state and certainly resurfacing if she decides to make another run for president in 2016.
On the Senate side, Clinton repeated her earlier acceptance of full responsibility for the Benghazi tragedy that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.
“As I have said many times since Sept. 11, I take responsibility,” she said in her opening statement. “I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure.”
The important task now, she added, was to move forward and make the changes – including granting the secretary of state the authority to shift existing State Department funding to needs, like increased security, that may arise – that she said could help head off similar tragedies in the future.
Clinton offered a broad assessment of instability and terrorism risks likely to exist across North and West Africa for years to come, and said the US would continue to grapple with balancing security challenges with the need to remain engaged in the world’s riskiest environments.
“This is going to be a very serious, ongoing threat,” she said. “We are in for a struggle, but it is a necessary struggle.”
Republicans seemed less interested in such lofty notions for the future than in revisiting the shortcomings revealed by Benghazi.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who worked closely with Clinton when she was a senator, told her “the answers you’ve given today are not satisfactory to me,” before later saying “I categorically reject your answer” as to why the State Department did not immediately debrief officials who survived the attack to get a clear idea more quickly as to what had happened.
The State Department “should have at least interviewed the people who were there,” Senator McCain said, suggesting that could have prevented the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, from going on Sunday news shows on Sept. 15 and giving answers that were “false.”
McCain did, however, expand his criticism beyond the specific failures in Benghazi, underscoring his view that it was the Obama administration’s insistence on a “soft footprint” – no US military on the ground – in Libya after the fall of strongman Muammar Qaddafi that was “potentially responsible for the [Benghazi] tragedy.”
Clinton responded to her old friend “we just have a disagreement” over both “what happened and when it happened” in Benghazi and the administration’s actions in Libya post-Qaddafi. She did remind the senators that a number of congressional “holds” had been put on administration requests for funding for stepped-up involvement in Libya.
A common refrain from some members of Congress, she said, was, “Why are we doing anything for Libya, it’s a wealthy country” because of its oil.
Suggesting that the disconnect between Congress and the administration on issues like resources for a country like Libya or spending on diplomatic security also shares in the blame for the Benghazi tragedy, Clinton said, “We have to get our act together.”
The testiest exchange in the Senate testimony came when Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin told Clinton that had it wanted to, the administration could have “easily, easily” ascertained within hours that Benghazi was not the result of a demonstration. Instead, he said, “we were misled that there were supposedly protests and something sprang out of that.”
Clinton raised her hands – and her voice – responding angrily that four Americans were dead, adding, “Was it because of a protest or is it because of guys out for a walk one night and they decide they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”
The committee’s Democratic senators had their own refrain to cite in response to their Republican colleagues’ repeated assertion that the American people were “misled” on Benghazi. For every reference to “false information” on Benghazi, the Democrats responded with reminders of the Bush administration’s insistence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – weapons that turned out not to exist – as a pretext for going to war.
Sen. Dick Durban (D) of Illinois, citing the Iraq WMD claims and asking rhetorically if “the American people [are always] told correct information right away,” added, “We could have a hearing on that.”