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Secretary of State Clinton Claims Fault for Benghazi Attack in Heated Hearing

January 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke before Senate and House committees about the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Gwen Ifill reports on Clinton's taking responsibility for the inadequate security as well as her rejection of claims from Republicans that the Obama administration had deceived the nation.
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GWEN IFILL: Secretary of Clinton – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified for the first time today about last September’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Her testimony before Senate and House committees was at times tense and even emotional.

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State: As I have said many times, I take responsibility, and nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure.

GWEN IFILL: From the start, Sec. Clinton made clear she accepts ultimate blame for security failings before the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. She told a Senate hearing this morning, it’s not just about policy; it’s personal.

HILLARY CLINTON:  I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children.

GWEN IFILL: But sparks flew when Senate Republicans accused the Obama administration of deceiving the nation by initially suggesting the Benghazi attack was something other than terrorism.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin:

SEN. RON JOHNSON, R-Wis.: We were misled that there were supposedly protests and then something spread out of that, an assault sprang out of that. And that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact.

SEN. RON JOHNSON: And the American people could have known that within days, and they didn’t know that.

HILLARY CLINTON:  With all due respect, the fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they would 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. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the — the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information.

GWEN IFILL: Republican John McCain pressed Clinton on why U.S. consular staff evacuated from Libya to Germany weren’t questioned sooner.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: I categorically reject your answer to Sen. Johnson about, well, we didn’t ask these survivors, who were flown to Ramstein the next day, that they — that this was not a spontaneous demonstration.

To say that it’s because an investigation was going on? The American people deserve to know answers, and they certainly don’t deserve false answers.

So, here we are four months later and we still don’t have the basic information. Now, if you want to go out and tell the American people what happened, you should at least have interviewed the people who were there, instead of saying, no, we couldn’t talk to them because an FBI investigation was going on.

HILLARY CLINTON:  Well, Senator, I understand your very, very strong feelings.

You knew Chris. You were a friend of Chris. You were one of the staunchest supporters of the efforts to dislodge Gadhafi and try to give the Libyan people a chance. And we just have a disagreement. We have a disagreement about what did happen and when it happened with respect to explaining the sequence of events.

We did get to talk to the D.S. agents when they got back to this country. We did so. It was not before September 15. We had no access to the surveillance cameras for weeks, which helped to answer a number of questions.

GWEN IFILL: The challenges continued later in the day before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER, R-Calif.: Over and over and over again, it was repeated that we had enraged the Islamic terrorists which, by the way, what’s that do?

When you say that we enraged the Islamic terrorists, that means we’re at fault, they’re not at fault.

HILLARY CLINTON:  I want to be clear that, of course, it was a terrorist attack.

The very next day, I called it an attack by heavily armed militants on our compound. I think there is still, however, questions about exactly what caused it, who the attackers were.

GWEN IFILL: In the Senate, Kentucky. Republican Rand Paul said Clinton, who is leaving office shortly, should have be.en fired first.

SEN. RAND PAUL, R- Kentucky.: I’m glad that you’re accepting responsibility. I think that ultimately with your leaving, you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11. And I really mean that. 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. I think it’s inexcusable.

GWEN IFILL: Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois accused Republicans of applying a double standard.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: I do want to make one point, for the record here, about whether the American people are told everything right away, in the right way, so that they can be fully informed. And I would like to refer to five words for them to reflect on: Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

We were told by every level of government here there were Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that justified a war, the invasion of the United States. We’re still searching for those weapons. They didn’t exist. Thousands of Americans lost their lives.

We could have a hearing on that, if you’d like.

GWEN IFILL: While the Benghazi attack was the main focus, Clinton also turned her attention to upheaval elsewhere in North Africa.

HILLARY CLINTON:  Benghazi did not happen in a vacuum. The Arab revolutions scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region. Instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria.

GWEN IFILL: In Mali, elements of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, have seized a large swathe of territory, prompting France to intervene militarily with airpower and ground troops.

The U.S. military is providing transport flights to aid the French, and Clinton said other assistance is still under consideration.

HILLARY CLINTON:  But it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven. People say to me all the time, well, AQIM hasn’t attacked the United States.

Well, before 9/11, 2001, we hadn’t been attacked on our homeland since, I guess, the War of 1812 and — and Pearl Harbor. So you can’t say, well, because they haven’t done something they’re not going to do it.

This is not only a terrorist syndicate; it is a criminal enterprise.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton also said the recent crisis at a natural gas plant in Algeria is more evidence of the growing threat of AQIM.

Islamist militants seized the site last week, and the Algerian military struck back. The Algerian government says at least 37 foreign hostages were killed, including three Americans.

Clinton conceded many questions remain about that incident.

HILLARY CLINTON:  And let me offer our deepest condolences to the families of the Americans and all of the people from many nations who were killed and injured in that recent hostage crisis. We’re in close touch with the government of Algeria. We stand ready to provide assistance. We are seeking to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so we can work together with Algerians and others to prevent such terrorist attacks in the future.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton is expected to be back before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow, to introduce her likely successor, Sen. John Kerry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, you can watch some of the more heated exchanges from the hearing, as well as read the full testimony transcript.