Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her long-awaited testimony on the Benghazi attacks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday — a series of hearings that went far beyond the expected inquiry into the events of Sept. 11, 2012.
Clinton was scheduled to testify before Congress in December, but illness forced her to cancel.
The hearings, as expected, were full of feisty interchanges between Clinton and critics of the administration’s handling of the crisis.
But they were also characterized by political posturing, from both sides of the aisle, that could signal an eagerness to look ahead to a future battle — for the White House.
The attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, have been painted by the Republicans as one of the Obama administration’s major policy failings.
Their criticism has centered on the lack of security at the consulate and, even more, on an alleged cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.
Just days after the Benghazi events, UN Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on several Sunday morning talk shows with talking points suggesting the attacks were a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube.
When it emerged that the deadly strike was a well-coordinated assault by a group with links to Al Qaeda, the Republicans pounced, accusing the White House of obfuscation, and effectively blocking Rice’s potential nomination to replace Clinton when she resigns.
The State Department convened an Accountability Review Board (ARB) to determine the facts of the case. The board did find serious deficiencies in security and criticized leadership within the State Department, but stopped short of blaming any particular officials for dereliction of duty.
The secretary’s appearance on Wednesday will be one of her last official acts as secretary of state. She's expected to step down shortly, and tomorrow she will present her proposed replacement, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearings.
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But Clinton has been widely rumored to be considering a run for president in 2016, and the Democrats in the Senate hearings were less than subtle in their hints that they expected to see her continue in the political arena.
“I know you will not go gently from the world stage,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), who was chairing the Senate committee. He heaped praise on Clinton who, he said, has “changed the face of America abroad,” and is “the most traveled secretary in history.”
The fulsome plaudits continued from the other Democratic members of the committee, including from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who told Clinton, “You will be sorely missed but I, for one, hope not for too long.”
Clinton has denied that she's planning a run for the White House, but her protestations have largely gone unheeded. Once she rests from her exhausting tenure atop Foggy Bottom, most Democrats expect that she will jump back into the fray, hoping for a more successful outcome than in her previous presidential bid against Barack Obama in 2008.
But Clinton was not the only potential candidate on view Wednesday. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) were also present. Both have indicated that they have presidential ambitions, and Paul, for one, was intent on demonstrating his scrappy style and uncompromising stance.
“Had I been president at the time … I would have relieved you of your post,” Paul said. He also called the Benghazi attacks “the worst tragedy since 9/11."
Clinton gave as good as she got, lashing out at Paul for politicizing the inquiry.
"The reason that we put into effect an accountability review board is to take it out of the heat of politics and partisanship and accusations, and to put it in the hands of people who have no stake in the outcome," she said.
The Democrats were not about to let the Republicans smear Obama’s record without highlighting the failings of the George W. Bush administration.
Responding to Paul’s hyperbolic characterization of the Benghazi attacks, newly-elected Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) brought up the war in Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction that served as a reason for invasion.
“I think if some people on this committee want to call the tragedy in Benghazi the worst since 9/11, it misunderstands the nature of 4,000 Americans-plus lost over 10 years of war in Iraq who fought under false pretenses,” he said.
Clinton was emotional at times, choking back tears as she described her efforts to console family members of those killed in Libya.
“For me, this is not just a matter of policy. It’s personal,” she said. “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.”
The secretary also gave a heated response to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who repeatedly pressed Clinton on the administration’s alleged lack of transparency in explaining the circumstances surrounding the attack.
“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 who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” she said, raising her voice and her fists as she spoke.
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