- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning about the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on that killed four American citizens, including the ambassador to Libya. Her remarks came after four months of controversy and finger-pointing about security lapses, intelligence failures, about and the administration’s response to the attack, with critics accusing the White House and State Department of misleading the public (a charge that may have scuttled U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice’s chances for a nomination to succeed Clinton in Foggy Bottom).
After months of reporting on the attack, there was little new information to be gleaned from Clinton’s testimony, but it did provide an opportunity for both the secretary and her congressional critics to air their perspectives and grievances. Clinton’s testimony turned emotional early on, as she choked up in her opening statements describing standing with President Obama as the bodies of the Americans killed in Benghazi arrived at Andrews Air Force Base. She also reiterated that, "as I have said many times since Sept. 11, I take responsibility."
The hearing also turned heated at times. Sen. Ronald Johnson (R-Wis.) expressed his vehement disbelief that the State Department could not determine whether the attack was a planned terrorist action or grew out of a protest in response to the incendiary film Innocence of Muslims, which had provoked rioting at other U.S. facilities throughout the Muslim world that week.
"Madam Secretary, do you disagree with me that a simple phone call to those evacuees [from the Benghazi consulate] would have ascertained immediately that there was no protest?" Sen. Johnson asked. "I mean, that was a piece of information that could have been easily, easily obtained," he continued, before dismissing Clinton’s comment that she did not want to interfere with the processes at work on the ground as an "excuse."
The secretary told Johnson "to read the ARB [Accountability Review Board report] and the classified ARB because even today there are questions being raised" about the attackers’ interests and allegiance. (Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) wrote about the ARB for Foreign Policy last month.) When pressed again, a visibly exasperated Clinton responded, "With all due respect, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night who decided to 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."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) were visibly frustrated by Clinton’s answers. After the secretary told the committee that she had not personally read all the cables from the diplomatic mission in Libya, including those requesting increased security measures, Sen. Paul remarked that this represented "a failure in leadership," a charge that has been leveled by FP‘s own Shadow Government as well. "Had I been president at the time," he told Clinton, "and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Amb. Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post.". McCain again voiced his doubts about the veracity of administration messaging about the attack in the early weeks afterwards. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) compared the administration’s response to the faulty intelligence behind claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. Clinton said of the talking points, "The fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information."
McCain also "strongly disagreed" with Clinton’s characterization of U.S. policy towards Libya after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall, concluding by saying that the State Department’s choice of a "soft footprint" for security contributed to the deaths at Benghazi. Clinton pointed out that Congress had placed holds on funding requests aid and security projects like those McCain cited. "We’ve got to get our act together between the administration and the Congress. If this is a priority, trying to help this government stand up security and deal with what is a very dangerous environment from east to west, then we have to work together," Clinton replied.
One of the few substantive clarifications was the role of the Marine personnel stationed with the diplomatic mission — a point of confusion among many policymakers. "Historically, Marine guards do not protect personnel," said Clinton. "Their job is to protect classified material and destroy it if necessary." Several senators suggested that this should change.
Regarding that classified material, Clinton told the committee that no classified documents were left at Benghazi, "although some unclassified material was unfortunately left behind." Foreign Policy reported about this oversight in September when documents found at the razed compound suggested that there had been warning signs an attack was imminent.
Interestingly, one of the most interesting moments in the hearing wasn’t about the Benghazi attack at all. Clinton spoke briefly about the hostages taken at the In Amenas gas field in Algeria, observing that the same proliferation of weapons that helped arm the terrorists in Benghazi also helped arm the terrorists in southern Algeria. "The vast majority of weapons came out of Qaddafi warehouses," she said, characterizing the spread of small arms and shoulder-fired missiles as a "Pandora’s box." As to whether the attacks in Benghazi and at In Amenas were directly related, she said there was insufficient intelligence.
The testimony made for a strange coda to Clinton’s otherwise well-regarded term as secretary of state. Her imminent departure was mentioned as a matter of accountability by both her critics and herself. Paul remarked that he saw her decision to step down now as accepting "culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11." Clinton saw things differently. "Nobody is more committed to getting this right," she told the committee in her opening remarks. "I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure."