US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday angrily dismissed Republican charges of a cover-up over the deadly Benghazi attack and warned the world needs to combat rising extremism.
Combative and at times emotional, Clinton gave no ground to congressional critics still seeking to determine why the administration at first blamed the assault on Sept. 11 last year on a protest outside the US mission in eastern Libya.
“With all due respect, the fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night and [who] decided to go kill some Americans?” she told a tense Senate hearing.
“What difference does it make?” she said, thumping her fist on the table as US Senator Ron Johnson repeatedly asked her why the administration had initially linked the attack to protests against an anti-Islam Internet video.
Later, there were also testy exchanges before a US House of Representatives committee, when Representative Jeff Duncan told Clinton: “Madam Secretary, you let the consulate become a death trap. And that’s national security malpractice.”
Clinton said she had come to give an “open, transparent presentation” and could have just kept the findings of an inquiry classified and “then, you know, just said goodbye. That’s not who I am. That’s not what I do.”
Her more than five hours of testimony came on the eve of yesterday’s Senate hearing to confirm her successor, Senator John Kerry, who is expected to be easily voted in and could take over within days.
Clinton insisted there was no administration cover-up of the events, when dozens of heavily armed militants overran the compound and a nearby CIA-run annex, setting off an eight-hour firefight in which four people, including US ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.
In one of her last major appearances before stepping down at the end of the month, Clinton showed no signs of the ill-health which plagued her last month.
She choked back a sob as she described having to call the families with the news that Stevens, and foreign service information manager Sean Smith, had been killed.
“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” air force base, Clinton said.
She urged senators to learn from the attack as they confront a rapidly evolving political landscape in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“Benghazi didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warning of the dangers of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers.
However, top Republican senators rejected her explanations, with Senator Rand Paul suggesting she should have been fired for not reading requests for additional security.
Senator John McCain also “categorically” rejected some answers, saying four months on, the US public still did not have “basic information.”
He said he still wanted to know why US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said days after the attack that it was triggered by a spontaneous protest outside the mission.
Appearing first before the Senate panel and then before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Clinton said that she took full responsibility for deficiencies at the mission and insisted she had taken steps to boost security in high-threat regions.
However, Clinton said that Congress ultimately had the power to better fund security, highlighting how the State Department’s budget for diplomatic security for last year was US$340 million — or 10 percent — less than requested.