Hillary Clinton Faces Down Senate Foreign Relations Panel on Benghazi, Libya
Hearing shows off political ambitions on both sides of the witness tableJanuary 23, 2013
Reviewing the events of the deadly September attack in Benghazi, Libya, may have been the focus of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, but presidential politicking was also on display.
Clinton was at varying times relaxed, emotional, combative, and confident during the more than two hour session before a panel that included former Republican presidential candidate John McCain and two Republican Party rising stars with presidential ambitions, Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.
A likely 2016 presidential candidate herself, Clinton showed the most fire during an exchange with Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, who grilled her on why U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared to misrepresent what happening in Libya while appearing on Sunday talk shows soon after the attack.
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"With all due respect, the fact is, we had four dead Americans," Clinton said, her voice rising to a shout over Johnson's interjections.
"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," Clinton said.
Watch: Clinton scolds Sen. Johnson:
Though Clinton has denied interest in running for president in 2016, she did her best to keep her options open by making clear she had no role in crafting the talking points Rice used to make her controversial comments or in selecting Rice to go before television cameras on behalf of the administration.
She also repeatedly claimed responsibility for the events in Libya, but tried to refocus senators on what preventive actions could be taken to lower the risk of future events rather than assign blame.
"I would say that I personally was not focused on talking points, I was focused on keeping our people safe," Clinton said.
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McCain, one of the most vocal critics of Rice and the administration's handling of Benghazi, praised Clinton before informing her that he found her answers unsatisfactory.
"We just have a disagreement about what did happened and when it happened with respect to explaining the sequence of events," Clinton said, adding that Congress has not made her job easier. She pointed to congressional holds put on Libyan aid programs, security assistance, and anti-terrorism assistance.
"So we've got to get our act together between the administration and the Congress if this is a priority, if we are serious about trying to help this government stand up security and deal with what is a very dangerous environment from East to West, we have to work together," Clinton said.
As has been his custom since entering the Senate, Rubio took a respectful but pointed approach in questioning Clinton. He asked about the flow of information within the department and ultimately "how we can prevent some of this from happening."
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"I reiterate my taking responsibility. With specific security requests, they didn't come to me; I had no knowledge of them," Clinton said, though she added that she and others at State "talked a great deal about deteriorating threat environment in Libya."
But Paul, son of former Rep. Ron Paul, both of whom are known for their libertarianism, took the opposite approach from Rubio and strongly admonished Clinton.
"It's a failure of leadership that [greater security precautions] weren't done in advance and four lives were cost because of this," he said. "Had I been president at the time, and I had found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cable from [Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens], I would have relieved you from your post. I think it's inexcusable."
Watch: Sen. Paul lectures Clinton:
A budget hawk, Paul also took the opportunity to take swipes at Clinton for State Department spending, which he said included $100,000 request from the ambassador in Vienna for an electrical charging station and $100,000 spent on a trio of comedians sent to India.
Clinton responded that in accordance with the finding of the independent Accountability Review Board, four top officials had been removed from their jobs and placed on administrative leave.
"The reason we put into effect an Accountability Review Board is to take it out of the heat of politics and partisanship and accusations and put it in the hands of people who have no stake in the outcome," she said. "I believe in transparency, I believe in taking responsibility and I have done so."
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While there were several quotable exchanges and Clinton will likely take heat from conservatives for suggesting it doesn't matter why the attacks occurred, she made no major missteps in facing the Senate scrutiny.
Clinton is scheduled to go before the House Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday afternoon for further questioning.