Tearful Clinton defends Benghazi handling
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defends her handling of the September 11th attack on the mission in Benghazi that killed four Americans.PT0M0S 620 349
WASHINGTON: In long-awaited testimony, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday asserted that she had moved quickly to improve the security of US diplomats after the September attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans and prompted a scathing review of State Department procedures.
"As I have said many times, I take responsibility and nobody is more committed to getting this right," Clinton said in a prepared statement. "I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure."
Benghazi didn't happen in a vacuum. The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the morning, Clinton choked up as she recounted the grim moment in September when she and President Barack Obama received the bodies of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attack at Joint Base Andrews, outside Washington.
'Nobody is more committed to getting this right': US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the September 11, 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP
"I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews," she said. "I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters."
Clinton asserted that she was never made aware of the security requests from Benghazi by Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his subordinates. "I did not see these requests," she said. "They did not come to me. I did not approve them. I did not deny them."
"These requests do not normally come to the secretary of state," she added. "They are handled by security professionals in the department."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pounds her fists as she responds to intense questioning over the Benghazi attack. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
She insisted that the measures she was taking would ensure that requests received high-level attention in the future.
The day of testimony — Clinton was to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon — has major political implications for the departing secretary of state, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
Clinton was to have testified in December, but her appearance was delayed by illness and then a concussion, which led to her brief hospitalization. Republicans have been insistent that Clinton needed to testify about her own role before leaving her State Department post, and she readily agreed.
Clinton first publicly took responsibility for the September attack in an October 15 interview with television reporters. Since then, however, she has committed herself to putting in place all of the recommendations of the independent review that was led by Thomas R. Pickering, the former US ambassador, and Mike Mullen, the retired admiral who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In her prepared testimony, Clinton sought to put the events in Benghazi in a broader regional context, noting the presence of an al-Qaida-affiliated group in northern Mali.
"Benghazi didn't happen in a vacuum," she said. "The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region. And instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria."
In her prepared remarks and in response to senators' questions, Clinton said the seizure of northern Mali in the past year by the regional al-Qaida branch posed a growing danger to US interests in the region, as well as ultimately to the US homeland.
"This is going to be a very serious, ongoing threat," she said. "We are in for a struggle, but it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven."
Clinton dismissed critics who have played down the threat from al-Qaida fighters and other Islamist militants in Mali and across the Sahara because the insurgents have not yet targeted the US homeland. "You can't say that because they haven't done something they will never do it," she said.
"We have got to have a better strategy," Clinton said, explaining that that means making it possible for governments in the region to defend themselves better and taking steps to bolster democracy. The Pentagon, for instance, has provided trucks to Mauritania to help its troops patrol its lengthy border with Mali. The Pentagon is also providing Niger, Mali's neighbor, with Cessna planes for reconnaissance.
Clinton said she could not confirm reports from Algerian security officials that militants who attacked an Algerian natural-gas complex last week participated in the attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. But she said the attackers in Algeria and the Islamists in Mali were armed with weapons looted from the former arsenals of deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
In a rare moment of confrontation, Clinton responded to persistent questions from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., by saying that there was too much focus on how the Benghazi attack was characterized in its early hours and not enough on how to prevent a recurrence.
"What difference at this point does it make?" she said, raising her voice and noting that there were "four dead Americans."
"It is our job to figure out what happened and to make sure it doesn't happen again," she snapped.
Later, Senator John McCain, delivered a blistering attack, saying that Clinton had failed to answer lingering questions about the assault in Benghazi and about Obama administration policy in Libya before the episode.
McCain asserted that the Obama administration's aversion to nation-building precluded it from adequately helping Libya organize and train its own forces. Specifically, McCain said that the administration failed to provide the kind of training, equipment and other assistance that would help the fledgling civilian government in Tripoli confront the growing menace from militias in Benghazi and other parts of Libya.
He said there were a number of obvious warning signs before the September attack in Benghazi, including an attack on the British ambassador's convoy in that city in June.
Clinton parried McCain, saying, "We have a disagreement over what happened and when it happened."
In response to McCain's criticism that the administration had failed to help support the new Libyan government deal with its numerous security challenges, Clinton said that Congress had delayed aid to Libya and that she would provide a list of steps that had been taken to train and equip Libyan forces.
Referring to the collective ability of Congress and the administration to agree on a coordinated, effective response to Libya, Clinton said, "We've got to get our act together."
She also asserted that headway was being made on putting in place the panel's recommendations, repeating themes that had been made to Congress by senior State Department officials last month.
"And, as I pledged in my letter to you last month, implementation has now begun on all 29 recommendations," Clinton said. "Our task force started by translating the recommendations into 64 specific action items. All of these action items were assigned to specific bureaus and offices, with clear timelines for completion. Fully 85 percent are on track to be completed by the end of March, with a number completed already."
Clinton sought to avoid the controversy over whether the attack was the work of terrorists that dogged Susan E. Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who was Obama's initial preference to serve as Clinton's successor. She suggested that she was inclined to see the attack as a terrorist act from the start.
"The very next morning, I told the American people that heavily armed militants assaulted our compound and vowed to bring them to justice. And I stood with President Obama as he spoke of 'an act of terror,"' she said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is still led by Senator John Kerry, whose confirmation hearing as secretary of state is Thursday. Kerry is not leading the Wednesday hearing to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest. The hearing is being led by Senator Robert Menendez, who is the incoming chairman. Kerry was not present as the hearing began.
"In all these diplomatic engagements, and in near-constant contacts at every level, we have focused on targeting al-Qaida's syndicate of terror — closing safe havens, cutting off finances, countering extremist ideology, and slowing the flow of new recruits," Clinton said. "We continue to hunt the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Benghazi and are determined to bring them to justice. And we're also using all our diplomatic and economic tools to support the emerging democracies of the region, including Libya, to strengthen security forces and provide a path away from extremism."
The New York Times