WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at times emotional and fierce, insisted Wednesday that the department is moving swiftly and aggressively to strengthen security at U.S. missions worldwide after the deadly Sept. 11 raid on the consulate in Libya.
In her last formal testimony on Capitol Hill as America’s top diplomat – but perhaps not her last time on the political stage – Clinton once again took full responsibility for the department’s missteps leading up to an assault at the U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Her voice cracking at one point, Clinton said the experience was highly personal.
“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, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a jam-packed hearing.
Her voice rising to Republicans’ challenges at another point, she defended the Obama administration and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was vilified for widely debunked claims five days after the attack that protests precipitated the raid rather than terrorism.
She challenged the GOP focus on Rice’s comments, which were based on intelligence talking points.
“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 who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” a clearly exasperated and angry Clinton told Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
“It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.”
She insisted that “people were trying in real time to get to the best information” and that her focus was on looking ahead on how to improve security rather than revisiting the talking points and Rice’s television appearance.
Clinton said the department is implementing the 29 recommendations of an independent review board that harshly criticized the department, and it’s going beyond the proposals with a special focus on high-threat posts.
The review board report faulted “systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department,” and four employees were put on administrative leave.
“Nobody is more committed to getting this right,” she said. “I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure.”
Three weeks after her release from a New York hospital, Clinton was at times defiant, complimentary and willing to chastise lawmakers. She tangled with some who could be rivals in 2016 if she decides to seek the presidency again.
Clinton refused to back down from withering GOP criticism of the Obama administration’s shifting explanations about the Benghazi assault.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Clinton friend in the Senate, offered praise along with harsh complaints.
“It’s wonderful to see you in good health and combative as ever,” McCain told a visibly slimmer Clinton, whose planned testimony last month was delayed because of her illness.
In the same breath, he dismissed her explanation of events, the administration’s response to warnings about the deteriorating security situation in Libya, and even the attention paid to Libya after rebels toppled strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
GOP lawmakers repeatedly questioned Clinton about whether she had seen earlier requests for beefed-up security.
“I did not see these requests. They did not come to me. I did not approve them. I did not deny them,” Clinton said.
That provoked a testy response from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential presidential candidate in 2016. He excoriated Clinton and expressed disbelief that she hadn’t read the cables about security concerns.
“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,” Paul told Clinton. “I think it’s inexcusable.”
Clinton took Republicans to task, chiding House GOP members for recently stripping $1 billion in security aid from the hurricane relief bill and the Senate panel for failing for years to produce an authorization bill.