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Clinton accepts responsibility, not blame, for Benghazi

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:36 p.m.

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 American posts in Libya. She 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 Benghazi. She used the full day of hearings to deny repeatedly involvement in key controversies and pointedly reject the allegations of Republicans.

The feisty testimony before House and Senate committees, likely to be the outgoing secretary's last, elicited praise from Democrats and frustration from Republicans. Far from putting the issue to rest, the testimony fueled a debate that has raged on Capitol Hill for four months.

Not backing down

The secretary battled tough criticism from lawmakers throughout the day. In one of the final jabs of the session, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., told her, “Madame Secretary, you let the consulate become a death trap.”

The biggest flash point occurred during morning testimony. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin claimed the department could have “easily” determined what happened that night by interviewing staffers who were evacuated. He was referring to the administration's initial claim that the attack sprung out of a protest. It was later determined there was no protest in Benghazi. Diplomatic security agents said as much to the FBI during interviews on Sept. 14, despite administration claims to the contrary two days later.

“The American people could have known that (there was no protest) within days, and they didn't know that,” Johnson said.

At that point, Clinton began to raise her voice.

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” she said.

“I understand,” Johnson said.

Clinton continued to speak, raising her voice and gesturing: “Was it because of a protest or is it because of guys out for a walk one night and they decide to go kill some Americans?

“What difference, at this point, does it make?”

Clinton, lowering her voice, then said it is the administration's job to “figure out what happened” and prevent it from happening again.

No ‘clear picture'

In the testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Clinton acknowledged the administration did not have a “clear picture” of what happened in the immediate aftermath. She said perhaps officials didn't do a good enough job explaining that they “didn't have a clear picture.”

But Clinton still said the motivations of the attackers, to this day, are not clear. “Even today there are questions being raised,” she said, referring to findings in the classified version of a recent report that she could not describe in detail. Clinton appeared first before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and then at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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 cover-up of high-level negligence in security measures.

Clinton went on to deny having ever seen the requests for more security from the Libya team that were denied by officials within the State Department.

“I didn't see those requests; they didn't come to me,” Clinton said, adding those kinds of requests wouldn't normally be sent to the secretary but that they were handled by professional security people.

Clinton, while pushing back against Johnson, said she was not involved in crafting the controversial statements that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice made on Sept. 16 — in which she asserted the attack was “spontaneous” and linked to a protest.

“I wasn't involved in the talking points process,” Clinton said, though she said she wasn't aware of anything that would have “contradicted” the information Rice had at the time. She noted that “going on the Sunday shows is not my favorite thing,” a possible reference to claims that she declined to go on television Sept. 16.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., later suggested lives could have been saved if Clinton were more involved in reviewing security requests.

He said that if he were president, “I would have relieved you of your post.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., after the exchange with Johnson, said he was not satisfied with the secretary's answers, complaining that the public still doesn't have answers on what happened.

Defending response

Clinton defended the administration's actions on the night of Sept. 11, when the diplomatic compound came under fire and the four Americans died.

“I directed our response from the State Department and stayed in close contact with officials from across our government and the Libyan government,” she said. “No delays in decision-making. No denials of support from Washington or from our military.”

Citing the findings of a review panel, she said: “The board said the response saved American lives in real time — and it did.”

Clinton portrayed the militant operation 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.

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.”

Blaming downward

Although Clinton reiterated her full responsibility for the overall security posture of the department, she reminded the committee that the review board had found that direct responsibility for the deficiencies highlighted during the Benghazi assault began at the level of assistant secretary and below.

The report stopped short of deeming the lapses a dereliction of duty, which would've required proof of intentional misconduct, and instead blamed poor leadership of senior officials for leaving the consulate a highly vulnerable target in a volatile city where other visiting diplomats had shut down operations or taken more precautions. Four State Department managers were placed on administrative leave as part of disciplinary actions related to the report's findings; one of them resigned.

The Accountability Review Board's report portrays a total system breakdown in the attacks.

Intelligence agency reports failed to provide “immediate, specific tactical warning” of the Sept. 11 attacks, the panel found, adding that “known gaps existed in the intelligence community's understanding of extremist militias in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests.”

The consulate, according to the review board's report, had an inadequate number of security agents, a lack of protective equipment, and was overseen by officials who failed to appreciate and craft a response to the city's rapidly deteriorating security situation.

While the report didn't fill in the gaps on what the Obama administration knew about the attacks and when — one of the most controversial points in the government's handling of the aftermath — the panel did find that there was no anti-American demonstration preceding the attack, as senior officials once had insisted.

“The board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity,” stated the unclassified version of the report.

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