WASHINGTON — Defiant in one of her final appearances in office, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress on Wednesday that she accepts responsibility for security lapses in the deadly Sept. 11 attack on U.S. posts in Libya, but she also stressed that the assault was part of a broader war the United States faces against extremists in North Africa.
Although her voice cracked and she appeared close to tears when describing the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Clinton overall seemed confident – and even combative at times – when pressed on security lapses in the attacks in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The members’ questioning took on highly partisan tones, with Democrats blaming Congress for denying funds they say would’ve helped the State Department improve diplomatic security, and Republicans depicting an administration coverup of high-level negligence in security measures. Clinton appeared first before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and then at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Being hauled before Congress to answer for what an independent panel called “grossly inadequate” security procedures was hardly the ideal career capstone for a Washington fixture who vows to exit the political stage once her presumed successor, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is confirmed. One Democrat openly lamented that Clinton’s final appearance before Congress was over a tragedy rather than to recap her diplomatic successes.
“Nobody wants to sit where I am and have to think now about what coulda, shoulda, woulda happened,” Clinton told the Senate panel.
Current events continually encroached on what was to have been the long-awaited reckoning over the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack. In response to pointed questions about the Obama administration’s preparedness to combat al Qaida-allied forces that are trying to win a foothold in North Africa, Clinton called the fight “a necessary struggle.” She tied the assault in Libya to last week’s hostage crisis in Algeria and the ongoing French-led military campaign against Islamist rebels in northern Mali.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also tied the Benghazi hearings to the wider fight against al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is known as AQIM, the North African branch of the terror network.
“To this point, AQIM has not represented a direct threat to the homeland, but you can tell by our support of the mission that the French have undertaken and by our overall efforts to go after and contain and defeat extremists who would do harm to our interests, that we are very serious about this,” Carney told reporters.
Clinton portrayed the militant operation against the U.S. consulate and nearby CIA annex in Benghazi as a direct consequence of the Arab Spring revolts, which toppled authoritarian rulers and gave operational space to long-suppressed radical forces. She said weapons that disappeared in the fall of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime undoubtedly had been smuggled to other countries, including for use in the Syrian uprising turned civil war.
However, Clinton said, the United States shouldn’t give up on transitional governments, which she said were still struggling to foster democratic rule and rebuild their security forces – two areas where U.S. diplomacy could play an important role.
Clinton’s testimony contained hints to some of the obstacles U.S. diplomats face in North Africa’s democratic transitions: She said she had to “beg” the Tunisians to intervene to save the U.S. Embassy from rioters; she said Libyans had the will to help secure U.S. diplomats but not the security capacity; and that U.S. officials had to get on the phone and tell the Egyptians to get their forces on the street when demonstrators appeared ready to breach the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
“We are in a new reality,” Clinton told the Senate committee. “We are trying to make sense of changes that nobody had predicted but that we’re going to have to live with.”
At least twice, Clinton’s voice cracked and she appeared close to tears when addressing the deaths of colleagues, but she also showed a combative streak, especially in firing back to suggestions that the department had failed to debrief evacuees to find out quickly whether the attack was the outgrowth of a spontaneous demonstration or a well-planned terrorist operation.
“The fact is, we had four dead Americans!” Clinton practically yelled to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., stressing that her first priority during the evacuation proceedings was treatment for the wounded, not debriefing evacuees.
“Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans?” she continued. “What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”
Republican lawmakers had demanded for months that Clinton explain in person the many missteps that an independent review panel found in her department’s handling of the Benghazi crisis. Clinton’s appearance was delayed by a prolonged illness and a concussion she suffered after a fainting spell, though some right-wing critics accused her of trying to wriggle out of her commitment to testify.
On Wednesday, Clinton reiterated her full responsibility for the overall security posture of the department. But she reminded the committee that the review board had found that direct responsibility for the deficiencies highlighted during the Benghazi assault began at the level of assistant secretary and below.
The report stopped short of deeming the lapses a dereliction of duty, which would’ve required proof of intentional misconduct, and instead blamed poor leadership of senior officials for leaving the Benghazi consulate a highly vulnerable target in a volatile city where other visiting diplomats already had shut down operations or taken more precautions. Four State Department managers were placed on administrative leave as part of disciplinary actions related to the report’s findings; one of them resigned.
Republican lawmakers, however, insisted that Clinton be held directly responsible. She sparred with them in testy exchanges over whether she’d read cables related to Benghazi security concerns, and about whether State Department officials should’ve spoken more quickly with evacuees to ascertain the nature of the Benghazi attack. One Republican told Clinton bluntly that she should’ve been dismissed from her Cabinet seat.
“Had I been president at the time, I would have relieved you of your post,” said freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The Accountability Review Board’s report portrays a total system breakdown in the attacks on the U.S. consulate and the CIA annex, though the Central Intelligence Agency wasn’t mentioned once in the public version of the report. The full, classified version included recommendations related to intelligence matters, as Clinton reiterated Wednesday when explaining her constraints to answering some questions that dealt with intelligence recommendations.
Intelligence agency reports failed to provide any “immediate, specific tactical warning” of the Sept. 11 attacks, the panel found, adding that “known gaps existed in the intelligence community’s understanding of extremist militias in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests.”
The consulate in Benghazi, according to the review board’s report, had an inadequate number of security agents, a lack of protective equipment, and was overseen by officials who failed to appreciate and craft a response to the city’s rapidly deteriorating security situation. The Libyan militia that was assigned to protect U.S. convoys was on strike at the time of the attack, upset over wages and working hours.
While the report didn’t fill in the gaps on what the Obama administration knew about the attacks and when – one of the most controversial points in the government’s handling of the aftermath – the panel did find that there was no anti-American demonstration preceding the attack, as senior officials once had insisted.
“The board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity,” stated the unclassified version of the report that was released publicly.
Steven Thomma of the Washington Bureau contributed.