Anyone who thought Hillary Clinton wouldn’t testify to Congress on the Benghazi attacks—and that she “faked” a concussion to avoid doing so—was misguided. Throughout a long day of being grilled by lawmakers, first before a committee of the Senate, and this afternoon before House members, the outgoing Secretary of State seemed to relish the opportunity to confront her critics over the September terrorist assault that killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Clinton admitted that diplomatic security was inadequate but said the department held an investigation and has taken various steps to improve, and quickly turned the tables on Republicans who grilled her by making the case that Congress has repeatedly underfunded her department, including diplomatic security.
Republicans pressed her on why UN ambassador Susan Rice—who delivered the administration’s talking points on TV talk shows—said the attacks grew out of a protest, instead of describing them as part of a pre-planned terrorist attack. Clinton said she did not choose Rice to deliver the comments, and did not know why the official talking points did not describe the violence as terrorism:
“I wasn’t involved in the talking points process. As I understand it, as I’ve been told, it was a typical interagency process, where staff, including from the State Department, all participated to try to come up with whatever was going to be made publicly available. And it was an intelligence product, and it’s my understanding that the intelligence community is working with appropriate committees to kind of explain the whole process.”
When Republican senator Jeff Flake complained that the administration did not give the public a clear picture of what went on, Clinton responded that they did not know themselves:
“We didn’t have a clear picture. I wish I could sit here today and tell you that within days, within a week, by September 20th, when we came up here, we had a clear picture. We did not have a clear picture.”
At one point, she seemed to tear up, talking about her conversations with the families of those killed. Later, when pressed by senator Johnson who said the administration had “misled” the public about the assault springing out of protests, she lost her cool:
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. 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? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”
(If Clinton decides to run for president in 2016, Republicans have made clear that the Benghazi issue will dog her. Some are already speculating that the “What does it matter?” clip will make it into campaign ads.)
Clinton said key questions about what triggered the attack remain unanswered to this day. “There’s evidence that the attacks were deliberate, opportunistic and pre-coordinated but not necessarily indicative of extensive planning,” she said.
She added that she had other pressing concerns at the time:
“I would say that I personally was not focused on talking points. I was focused on keeping our people safe, because as I said, I have a very serious threat environment in Yemen. It turned out we had people getting over that wall in Cairo, doing damage until we got them out. We had a serious threat against our embassy in Tunis. I had to call the president of Tunisia and beg him to send reinforcements, which he did, to finally save our embassy, which could have been a — disastrous. They burned and trashed our school.”
Clinton also asserted that she had no role in defining the level of security for the consulate, or denying requests for additional security that were made by diplomats in Libya:
“I feel responsible for the nearly 70,000 people who work for the State Department. I take it very seriously. But the specific security requests pertaining to Benghazi, you know, were handled by the security professionals in the department. I didn’t see those requests. They didn’t come to me. I didn’t approve them. I didn’t deny them.”
Senator John McCain criticized her answers as inadequate, and faulted the Obama administration for not doing more to provide Libya with security after the fall of Gadhafi—to which Clinton retorted that Congress had held up the funds for security assistance. “So we’ve got to get our act together between the administration and the Congress,” she said.
Clinton was also pressed on whether the attacks contradict President Obama’s statement that Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been “decimated.” She responded:
“Well, core al-Qaida certainly has been. I think you would hear the same from the intelligence community or DOD. The work that has been done in Afghanistan and the border areas between Afghanistan, Pakistan certainly has taken out a whole cadre of leadership. What we’re seeing now are people who have migrated back to other parts of the world — where they came from, primarily — who are in effect affiliates, part of the jihadist syndicate. Some of them, like al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, use that name. Others use different names. But the fact is they are terrorists. They are extremists. They have designs on overthrowing existing governments, even these new Islamist governments, of controlling territory. So although there has been the decimation of core al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, we do have to contend with the wannabes and the affiliates going forward.”
The hearings grew heated at time when some lawmakers denounced her. A Republican senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, was blunt: “I’m glad that you’re accepting responsibility. I think that ultimately, with your leaving, you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11. And I really mean that. Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post. I think it’s inexcusable.” But Clinton later told the House committee that 1.4 million cables come into the State Department, addressed to her, but she does not read them all.
Paul also berated Clinton for not sending U.S. Marines in to guard the diplomats, but Clinton said Marines are used only to guard classified materials and there were none in Benghazi. She said that the transitional government in Libya required that a particular private security company be used.
Clinton also used the hearings to deliver a warning about the growing threat in Mali:
“This is going to be a very serious ongoing threat because if you look at the size of northern Mali, if you look at the topography, it’s not only desert, it’s caves — sounds reminiscent. We are in a for a struggle. But it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven.”