A defensive and at times emotional Hillary Clinton told lawmakers during congressional hearings on Wednesday that it didn’t matter how the Sept. 11, 2012, attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, started.
In the days immediately following what turned out to be a well-coordinated ambush, Obama administration officials insisted the incident was a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim internet video. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died during the attack.
Republicans maintain the administration tried to cover up security lapses that made the attack possible by claiming it had no warning that something might happen. But Clinton, the outgoing secretary of state, dismissed the debate about who knew what and when they knew it as unhelpful and unproductive.
"The fact is we had four dead Americans,” she said in response to a rebuke from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., “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, senator."
Clinton took full responsibility for State Department missteps that led to the attack and said the agency would implement the 29 safety-improvement recommendations made by an independent review board last month. The group’s scathing report faulted the State Department for not doing more to defend the facility, even after Stevens requested additional security.
Despite biting criticism from Republican senators, Clinton maintained she had no prior knowledge about Stevens’ requests because she hadn’t read his diplomatic cables. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said ignorance was no excuse.
"Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post," he said. "I think it's inexcusable.”
As other administration officials have done in her absence, Clinton attempted to shift some of the blame for the attack to House Republicans, who stripped $1 billion in security aid from a recent hurricane relief bill. She also faulted senators for failing to produce an authorization bill.
Clinton was scheduled to appear before the Senate committee last month, but an illness and fainting spell, followed by a concussion and blood clot, sidelined her for weeks. Two deputies testified in her absence, offering many of the same responses she gave on Wednesday.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was glad to see her looking healthy and as combative as ever. But he also dismissed her explanation of what happened in Libya, saying the administration should have heeded warnings about the deteriorating security situation in Libya and paid more attention to Libya after rebels toppled strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
Clinton will return to the Senate on Thursday to introduce her likely successor, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Kerry did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.