Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before House and Senate committees on Wednesday. She testified first before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later before the House committee.
Her three-hour testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had emotional high points. She got choked up while talking about the four Americans who lost their lives in the September 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. Clinton maintained that the incident was for her not just a policy issue but personal. She said: "For me, 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. 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. It has been one of the great honors of my life to lead the men and women of the State Department and USAID."
Her voice was unsteady when she said: "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." She added: "Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure."
She said she took full responsibility for the mistakes the department made in the events leading up to the deaths of US diplomats including, Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The Benghazi incident is considered to have tarnished Clinton's otherwise successful tenure at the State Department. One of the major casualties was Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, who lost the opportunity to succeed Clinton as Secretary of State.
An earlier official inquiry into the incident had concluded the state department was unprepared to deal with it. The inquiry cited "leadership and management" issues, poor coordination and "unclear lines of authority."
Clinton came under strong attack from three Republican members of the Senate Committee: Senator Ron Johnson, Senator Rand Paul and Senator John McCain.
When Johnson criticized her for not immediately interviewing the evacuees about what was going on in the Consulate, she gave an answer that may come back to haunt her if she runs for president in 2016. With her fist raised, she shouted in response (The New Yorker):
Clinton: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.
Johnson: I understand.
Clinton: 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. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this. But the fact is that people were trying in real time to get the best information….But, you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime
Senator Johnson was, however, clear about what difference it made: "We were misled that there were supposedly protests and something sprang out of that, an assault sprang out of that and that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact. The American people could have known that within days."
And even more significant was what appeared to some, according to The Inquisitr, a doctoring of facts to protect Obama's reelection chances.
Clinton's opponents have already taken up her retort and there is already a #WhatDifferenceDoesItMake hashtag on Twitter, CNN reports.
Congressman Johnson expressed his dissatisfaction with Clinton's answers, saying that her emotional responses were histrionics to avoid answering the questions. He told reporters: "It was theatrics. Again, she didn't want to answer questions so she makes a big show of it. I’m not trying to be obnoxious here, I’m just trying to get the answers I believe the American people deserve to hear. It’s been four months."
Senator John McCain, who had worked with Clinton in the past, began with friendly comments: "It's wonderful to see you in good health and as combative as ever." He focused on UN Ambassador Susan Rice's appearance on a Sunday morning talk show following the attack in which she said the attack was a protest that went out of control.
Clinton defended Rice, saying: "People have accused Ambassador Rice and the administration of misleading Americans... nothing could be further from the truth." She claimed that Rice was speaking "of what had been determined as the most acceptable talking points."
She said it was usual to give public information in situations where the information was still subject to change as new facts emerge. She said: "We get out there, here's what we think happened, it's subject to change.. We did not conclude, finally, that there were no protests at all until days after the attack... Even today, the motivation, the actions before they got onto the compound, is still not nailed down."
Probably the most aggressive criticism came from Senator Rand Paul. Clinton was asked whether she was aware that Chris Stevens has requested increased security at the Consulate some months before the attack. Clinton gave the somewhat awkward response that she does not read all diplomatic cables sent to her office. She said: "I confess, I do not read all the cables that come into the state department."
The Washington Post reports Senator Paul responded that if he were the president he would have fired Clinton after she admitted that she did not read the cables that came from Benghazi.
According to the Daily Mail, he described her role in the affair as a "failure leadership," saying: "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. It's not satisfactory to me."
The confrontation with Senator Paul was significant because like Clinton, he is a potential strong candidate in 2016 and this may well be the first firing of shots between the two in preparation for 2016.
Clinton concluded, saying her department was working to implement recommendations of the review board that faulted the department. She said the department was giving special attention to high-risk diplomatic posts. She said: "Make no mistake about it, we have got to have a better strategy."
According to CNN, she summarized her justification of the State Department's response, saying: "If you wish to fault the administration, it’s that we didn't have a clear picture, and we probably didn't do as clear a job explaining that we did not have a clear picture, until days later, creating what I think are legitimate questions."
However, she said the response was "timely and exceptional" and that it "saved many American lives."
CNN reports she emphasized that the security situation in North Africa and the Middle East, after the Arab Spring, was threatening. According to CNN, she said: "The Arab Spring has ushered in a time when al Qaeda is on the rise. The world in many ways is even more dangerous because we lack a central command [in al Qaeda] and have instead these nodes that are scattered throughout North Africa and other places.”
She expressed concern about Mali, noting that Tuareg militia (who had fought for Gadhaffi) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were converging in the area. She said, "We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven."
She insisted that the US is facing threats that are very complex, but reminded her audience : "We should never forget that our security professionals get it right more than 99 per cent of the time."