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.
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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.
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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.”