Washington, D.C. -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was questioned about the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. (Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - A combative Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday fended off fierce interrogations from senators and House members in congressional hearings illuminating the brutal Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya that left a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.
Clinton, who testified before a Senate panel in the morning and a House panel later in the day, also promised to improve security for State Department officials in North Africa and around the world following the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi.
"I take responsibility," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure."
STATEMENT: Clinton's prepared text
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Clinton bristled at claims that the administration misled the public by initially linking the attack to a protest that spiraled out of control.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis, said "a simple phone call" to people in Benghazi "would have established immediately" that there was no protest. "Why wasn't that known?" he asked.
Clinton said State Department officials decided it was not appropriate to talk to U.S. officials in Benghazi before the FBI conducted their interviews. Pressed further on why that call wasn't made, Clinton erupted in anger.
"With all due respect, what difference at this point does it make?" she said, waiving her hands dismissively. "We have four dead Americans. It's our job to figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again. People were trying in real time to get to the information."
Job One, she said, is to find the killers and "bring them to justice."
Clinton, in what could be her last congressional testimony before leaving her post, said the deaths were "personal" for her.
She was near tears as she talked of standing next to President Obama "as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews (Air Force Base). I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gave Clinton a warm but brief welcome before quickly pressing her on security issues at the consulate. He said when he met with U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens on July 7 - more than two months before the attack - Stevens expressed "his deep and grave concerns about security in Benghazi ... and the need for additional assistance."
Clinton said requests for more security never reached her desk. McCain said the administration's "preference for a 'soft footprint' was part of the reason for what took place" in Benghazi.
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An Independent Accountability Review Board appointed by the State Department concluded that "systemic failures" left the consulate in Benghazi inadequately protected and confirmed that no protest preceded the deadly attack. In a report released in December, the board recommended that the State Department strengthen security in high-risk posts.
Clinton told the committee she has asked a deputy secretary to lead a task force to ensure that all 29 of the panels recommendations are implemented quickly and completely - and to pursue "additional steps above and beyond" those in the board's report.
"Benghazi did not happen in a vacuum," Clinton said. The instability brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 has expanded the reach of extremists across North Africa, she said.
The State Department for days after the Sept. 11 attack blamed it on a spontaneous protest of what it called a "reprehensible" video that denigrated Islam's prophet Mohammed, while CIA and diplomats from the scene were reporting that no protest preceded the attack.
Clinton testified that on the day of the attack, before it happened, she had been at the State Department dealing with a different crisis that evolved from protests to a YouTube video that disparaged Mohammed.
"During most of the day, prior to getting notice of the attack on our compound in Benghazi, we were very focused on the situation around our embassy in Cairo," Clinton said. "There were attempts to scale the wall, and we were in close contact with our counterparts in Cairo."
When the attack in Benghazi happened, about 4 p.m. Washington time, she called Libyan security officials "to get assistance as quickly as possible."
Clinton testified she spoke to National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, then-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus, who had a compound in Benghazi, and the White House.
She said U.S. officials participated in talks about what to do in a secure video conference with senior officials from the White House, the intelligence community and the Defense Department.
"I spoke to President Obama later in the day," she said.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, asked Clinton if she selected Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to go on the Sunday talk shows where she blamed the attack on a video days after it was clear the attack was terrorism.
"I did not," Clinton said.
Rice's television appearances five days after the attack derailed her possible nomination to replace Clinton as secretary of State. Clinton said she was too busy at the time to appear on TV herself.
"I was not focused on talking points," Clinton said. "I was focused on keeping our people safe. We still had people attacking our embassy in Yemen, trying to scale the walls. I had to call the president in Tunis and beg him to send reinforcements, which he did and eventually saved our embassy there."
Also, the classified intelligence assessment of the Benghazi attack was still cloudy about what it was, she said.
"There were a variety of potential causes and triggers," Clinton said.
There were some communications and coordination before the attack, but it still wasn't clear if it rose to the level of a preplanned terrorist attack, she said.
Clinton testified that her department reacted to the attack by taking immediate steps to protect personnel and postings in embassies and consulates facing large protests around the world.
At the House hearing, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., asked why no one was significantly disciplined, despite State Department claims that employees responsible for poor security in Benghazi would be disciplined.
"There has just been a shuffling of the deck chairs," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Do you find it acceptable that officials who were responsible remain employed at the State Department?"
Clinton said all four individuals have been removed from their jobs and put on administrative leave.
"This is something I need your help with," Clinton said. The administrative review board found that, under U.S. law, "unsatisfactory leadership is not satisfactory for a breach of duty," she said. "I have put forth to the Congress and Senate to fix that problem going forward."
Danielle Pletka, an analyst for the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said Clinton's testimony provided more questions than answers.
Clinton's assertion that she did not see cables from Stevens and his security chief asking for more security reflects "a general vibe" throughout the administration that the White House is not going to look kindly on anything that implies the country was facing a higher threat level, Pletka said.
Clinton's testimony was an effort to make the hearing about the aftermath rather than about why it happened, Pletka said. "Understanding why it happened, who was responsible and what lies were told makes a huge difference," she said.