Benghazi: The Attacks and the Lessons Learned
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Secretary of State
Opening Remarks Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
January 23, 2013
Any clear-eyed examination of this matter must begin with this sobering fact: Since 1988, there have been 19 Accountability Review Boards investigating attacks on American diplomats and their facilities. Benghazi joins a long list of tragedies for our Department, for other agencies, and for America: hostages taken in Tehran in 1979, our Embassy and Marine barracks bombed in Beirut in 1983, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, our embassies in East Africa in 1998, consulate staff murdered in Jeddah in 2004, the Khost attack in 2009, and too many others. Since 1977, 65 American diplomatic personnel have been killed by terrorists.
Now of course, the list of attacks foiled, crises averted, and lives saved is even longer. We should never forget that our security professionals get it right more than 99 percent of the time, against difficult odds all over the world. That’s why, like my predecessors, I literally trust them with my life.
Let’s also remember that administrations of both parties, in partnership with Congress, have made concerted and good faith efforts to learn from these attacks and deaths to implement recommendations from the review boards, to seek the necessary resources, and to do better in protecting our people from what has become constantly evolving threats. That is the least that the men and women who serve our country deserve. It’s what, again, we are doing now with your help. As Secretary, I have no higher priority and no greater responsibility.
As I have said many times, I take responsibility, and nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure.
Now, taking responsibility meant moving quickly in those first uncertain hours and days to respond to the immediate crisis, but also to further protect our people and posts in high-threat areas across the region and the world. It meant launching an independent investigation to determine exactly what happened in Benghazi and to recommend steps for improvement. And it meant intensifying our efforts to combat terrorism and figure out effective ways to support the emerging democracies in North Africa and beyond.
Let me share some of the lessons we’ve learned, the steps we’ve taken, and the work we continue to do.
First, let’s start on the night of September 11th itself and those difficult early days. I directed our response from the State Department, stayed in close contact with officials from across our government and the Libyan Government. So I saw firsthand what Ambassador Pickering and former Chairman Mike Mullen called timely and exceptional coordination; no delays in decision making, no denials of support from Washington or from our military. And I want to echo the Review Board’s praise for the valor and courage of our people on the ground, especially the security professionals in Benghazi and Tripoli. The board said the response saved American lives in real time, and it did.
The very next morning, I told the American people that heavily armed militants assaulted our compound, and I vowed to bring them to justice. And I stood with President Obama in the Rose Garden as he spoke of an act of terror.
It’s also important to recall that in that same period, we were seeing violent attacks on our embassies in Cairo, Sana’a, Tunis, Khartoum, as well as large protests outside many other posts where thousands of our diplomats serve. So I immediately ordered a review of our security posture around the world, with particular scrutiny for high-threat posts. I asked the Department of Defense to join Interagency Security Assessment Teams and to dispatch hundreds of additional Marine Security Guards. I named the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for High Threat Posts so missions in dangerous places get the attention they need. And we reached out to Congress to help address physical vulnerabilities, including risk from fire, and to hire additional Diplomatic Security personnel.
Second, even as we took these steps, I hurried to appoint the Accountability Review Board led by Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen so we could more fully understand from objective, independent examination what went wrong and how to fix it.
I have accepted every one of their recommendations. I asked the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources to lead a task force to ensure that all 29 of them are implemented quickly and completely, as well as pursuing additional steps above and beyond the recommendations.
I also pledged in my letter to you last month that implementation would begin, and it has. Our task force started by translating the recommendations into 64 specific action items. They were assigned to bureaus and offices with clear timelines for completion. Eighty-five percent are now on track to be completed by the end of March; a number are already completed. And we will use this opportunity to take a top-to-bottom look and rethink how we make decisions on where, when and whether people operate in high-threat areas, and then how we respond to threats and crises.
We are initiating an annual High Threat Post Review chaired by the Secretary of State, and ongoing reviews by the Deputy Secretaries, to ensure that pivotal questions about security do reach the highest levels. We will regularize protocols for sharing information with Congress. These are designed to increase the safety of our diplomats and development experts and reduce the chances of another Benghazi happening again.
We’ve also been moving forward on a third front: addressing the broader strategic challenge in North Africa and the wider region, because, after all, Benghazi did not happen in a vacuum. The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region. 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.
And let me offer our deepest condolences to the families of the Americans and all the people from many nations who were killed and injured in that recent hostage crisis. We are in close touch with the Government of Algeria. We stand ready to provide assistance. We are seeking to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so we can work together with Algerians and others to prevent such terrorist attacks in the future.
Concerns about terrorism and instability in North Africa are of course not new. They have been a top priority for the entire Administration’s national security team. But we have been facing a rapidly changing threat environment, and we have had to keep working at ways to increase pressure on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the other terrorist groups in the region.
In the first hours and days, I conferred with leaders – the President of Libya, Foreign Ministers of Tunisia and Morocco – and then I had a series of meetings at the United Nations General Assembly where there was a special meeting focused on Mali and the Sahel. In October, I flew to Algeria to discuss the fight against AQIM. In November, I sent Deputy Secretary Bill Burns to follow up in Algiers. And then in December, in my stead, he co-chaired an organization we started to respond to some of these threats: the Global Counterterrorism Forum, which was meeting in Abu Dhabi, as well as a meeting in Tunis of leaders working to build new democracies and reform security services.
We have focused on targeting al-Qaida’s syndicate of terror – closing safe havens, cutting off finances, countering extremist ideology, slowing the flow of new recruits. And we continue to hunt the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Benghazi and are determined to bring them to justice. We are using our diplomatic and economic tools to support these emerging democracies and to strengthen security forces and help provide a path away from extremism.
But let me underscore the importance of the United States continuing to lead in the Middle East, in North Africa, and around the world. We’ve come a long way in the past four years, and we cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root; our interests suffer; our security at home is threatened.
That’s why I sent Chris Stevens to Benghazi in the first place. Nobody knew the dangers better than Chris, first during the revolution, then during the transition. A weak Libyan Government, marauding militias, terrorist groups; a bomb exploded in the parking lot of his hotel, but he did not waver. Because he understood it was critical for America to be represented there at that time.
Our men and women who serve overseas understand that we accept a level of risk to protect the country we love. And they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation. They cannot work in bunkers and do their jobs. So it is our responsibility to make sure they have the resources they need, and to do everything we can to reduce the risks.
For me, this is not just a matter of policy. It’s personal. I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children.
It has been one of the great honors of my life to lead the men and women of the State Department and USAID. Nearly 70,000 serving here in Washington; more than 270 posts around the world. They get up and go to work every day, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances, because they believe, as we believe, the United States is the most extraordinary force for peace and progress the world has ever known.
And when we suffer tragedies overseas, as we have, the number of Americans applying to the Foreign Service actually increases. That tells us everything we need to know about what kind of patriots I’m talking about. They do ask what they can do for their country, and America is stronger for it.
So today, after four years in this job, traveling nearly a million miles, visiting 112 countries, my faith in our country and our future is stronger than ever. Every time that blue and white airplane carrying the words “United States of America” touches down in some far-off capital, I feel again the honor it is to represent the world’s indispensible nation. And I am confident that, with your help, we will keep the United States safe, strong, and exceptional.
So I want to thank this committee for your partnership and your support of diplomats and development experts. You know the importance of the work they do day in and day out. You know that America’s values and vital national security interests are at stake. And I appreciate what Ranking Member Corker just said: It is absolutely critical that this committee and the State Department, with your new Secretary and former Chairman, work together to really understand and address the resources, support, and changes that are needed to face what are increasingly complex threats.
I know you share my sense of responsibility and urgency, and while we all may not agree on everything, let’s stay focused on what really matters: protecting our people and the country we love. And thank you for the support you personally have given to me over the last four years.
I now would be happy to answer your questions.