10:52 am Jan. 23, 20131
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered an impassioned defense of the administration's response to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning.
“We had four dead Americans," Clinton said, raising her voice in anger. "Was it because of a protest? Or because of guys out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans? At this point, what difference does it make?”
Clinton was responding to a pointed line of questioning from Republican senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who pressed the outgoing Secretary of State about the talking points provided to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the days after the attack, which asserted that the attack was a spontaneous protest in response to an anti-Islamic film made in the United States.
Republicans latched onto Rice's appearance on several Sunday shows in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, accusing the administration of downplaying the ongoing threat from Al Qaeda for political gain.
Clinton said the questions were "legitimate," citing her own tenure as an inquiring senator, but described a State Department and an Obama administration that were "trying in real-time" to react to a number of threats to embassies around the globe.
She said she was not consulted about Rice's appearance, but said her understanding was that the talking points were a "typical interagency process" and that "nothing could be further from the truth" than accusing the ambassador of being dishonest about the intelligence.
In her opening remarks, Clinton's voice cracked as she recalled greeting the bodies of the four Americans who died in Benghazi, and her phone calls to their families.
"For me this is not just a matter of policy, it's personal," she said.
But she was consistently aggressive in defending her department and the administration.
She challenged Senator Bob Corker's assertion, during questioning, that previous recommendations from the Accountability Review Board had not been fully implemented, calling it false.
When Clinton asserted that she had not wanted to interfere with the ongoing process of the investigation, Johnson called it an "excuse" for the misguided talking points.
"Well, no, it's the fact," she replied.
"Certainly Ambassdor Rice and all the other administration officials were speaking off what were determined to be the most acceptable talking points," she told Senator Jeff Flake later in her testimony.
Sen. John McCain, whose attacks against Rice prompted her to withdraw her name from consideration to succeed Clinton, said it was "wonderful to see you in good health and as combative as ever," but that her answers to that point were "not satisfactory."
"We just have a disagreement," she told McCain, a longtime friend.
The most outspoken denouncement of Clinton's handling of the affair came from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who called it a "failure of leadership" that she did not read cables coming from Libya that had requested increased security at the embassy in Benghazi. Paul said one of the things that "bothered" him the most about the "original 9/11, is that no one was fired," saying if he was president, "I would have relieved you of your post."
Clinton seemed to shrug off his allegations, disputing his characterization, but without the apparent anger she had directed at Johnson.
Paul is widely considered to be interested in the Republican nomination in 2016, and the attacks could play well in the conservative media, where the idea that Clinton had contracted a "Benghazi flu" gained currency after she delayed her testimony due to what was a concussion and subsequent blood clot.
Another Republican mentioned with regard to 2016, Marco Rubio, was more muted in his questioning, asking if Clinton had specifically discussed the security situation in Libya in meetings before the attack.
"Of course," she said. "This was a constant conversation, senator."
Clinton will testify again this afternoon, before the House Foreign Relations Committee.