(WASHINGTON) — House Republicans slammed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday for her lack of awareness of State Department cables warning of security threats in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the Sept. 11 attack that killed four Americans, including Amb. Chris Stevens.
In the second congressional hearing of the day reviewing a report on the State Department’s security failures, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, asked Clinton Wednesday afternoon why her office had not responded to a notification from Stevens about potential dangers in Libya.
“Congressman, that cable did not come to my attention,” Clinton calmly told the House Foreign Affairs Committee hours after her Senate testimony Wednesday morning. “I’m not aware of anyone within my office, within the secretary’s office having seen that cable.”
She added that “1.43 million cables come to my office. They’re all addressed to me.”
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., asked Clinton whether she thought that signaled the need for a shifting of priorities to make sure she is notified about these kinds of threats in the future.
“That’s exactly what I’m intent on doing,” Clinton said. “We have work to do. We have work to do inside the department. We have work to do with our partners in DOD and the intelligence community.”
Such answers failed to appease members like Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who accused Clinton of letting “the consulate become a death trap.”
Clinton also told the House committee that an emphasis on security in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade diverted resources from other outposts around the world.
She told Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., that legislation he championed reorganizing the State Department in the 1990s had “been very important in protecting our people around the world,” but that the need for funding was ongoing and unmet.
Clinton reprised her role as defender of the State Department this afternoon in the second half of congressional testimony on the security failures that led to the deaths of Stevens and the other Americans.
Stevens understood the significance of the mission, she told the committee several hours after a morning Senate appearance.
“That’s why Chris Stevens went to Benghazi in the first place,” she said. “Nobody knew the dangers better than Chris, first during the revolution and then during the transition. A weak Libyan government, marauding militias, even terrorist groups … a bomb exploded in the parking lot of his hotel. He never wavered. He never asked to come home. He never said let’s shut it down, quit, go somewhere else.”
The afternoon appearance followed morning testimony from an energized Clinton, who stood her ground and told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she has overseen plans to secure diplomatic outposts around the world while cuts in State Department funding undermine those efforts.
Citing a report by the department’s Accountability Review Board on the security failures that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, during an attack last year, Clinton said the board is pushing for an increase in funding to facilities of more than $2 billion per year.
“Consistent shortfalls have required the department to prioritize available funding out of security accounts,” Clinton told the Senate Wednesday morning, while again taking responsibility for the Benghazi attack. “And I will be the first to say that the prioritization process was at times imperfect, but as the ARB said, the funds provided were inadequate. So we need to work together to overcome that.”
Clinton, showing little effect from her recent illnesses, choked up earlier in discussing the Benghazi attack.
“I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews,” Clinton said Wednesday morning, her voice growing hoarse with emotion. “I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters.”
The outgoing secretary of state was the only witness to giving long-awaited testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday morning, and appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at 2 p.m.
The secretary, who postponed her testimony in December, started Wednesday by giving context to the terrorist attack. “Any clear-eyed examination of this matter must begin with this sobering fact,” Clinton began. “Since 1988, there have been 19 Accountability Review Boards investigating attacks on American diplomats and their facilities.”
But the secretary did not deny her role in the failures, saying that as secretary of state, she has “no higher priority and no greater responsibility” than protecting American diplomats abroad like those killed in Benghazi.
“As I have said many times, I take responsibility, and nobody is more committed to getting this right,” Clinton said. “I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure.”
Among the steps Clinton has taken, she said, is to “elevate the discussion and the decision-making to make sure there’s not any” suggestions that get missed, as there were in this case.
Clinton testified that the United States needs to be able to “chew gum and walk at the same time,” working to shore up its fiscal situation while also strengthening security, and she refuted the idea that across-the-board cuts slated to take place in March, commonly referred to as sequestration, were the way to do that.
“Now sequestration will be very damaging to the State Department and USAID if it does come to pass, because it throws the baby out with the bath,” Clinton said, referring to the United States Agency for International Development, which administers civilian foreign aid.
While the State Department does need to make cuts in certain areas, “there are also a lot of very essential programs … that we can’t afford to cut more of,” she added.
More than four months have passed since the attack killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya. These meetings, during which Clinton discussed the report on State Department security failures by the Accountability Review Board, were postponed because of her recent illness.
Clinton told the Senate that the State Department is on track to have 85 percent of action items based on the recommendations in the Accountability Review Board report accomplished by March, with some already implemented.
The report led the State Department to relieve three employees of their posts — while a fourth resigned — because of “systemic failures and leadership deficiencies at senior levels in securing the compound.”
The departing staffers are still on administrative leave, however, meaning they are still State department employees.
While most senators took time out of the two-and-half-hour-long hearing to praise Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, others came down hard on her.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did not shy away from placing full responsibility on Clinton’s shoulders.
“I think that ultimately with your leaving you accepted culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11,” Paul told the secretary. “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. I think it’s inexcusable.”
Clinton said that was the reason her department turned to the Accountability Review Board.
“The reason we put into effect an accountability review board is to take it out of the heat of politics and partisanship and accusation, and to put it in the hands of people who have no stake in the outcome,” Clinton told the committee.
The secretary herself remained energized throughout the hearing. Indeed, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. called her “as combative as ever” before launching into his own attack on Clinton, who had testified that the motivation for the attack in Benghazi shouldn’t matter at this point.
“Why do we care?” McCain asked. “Because if the classified information had been included, it gives an entirely different version of events to the American people.
“So here we are, four months later, and we still don’t have the basic information.”
Clinton ripped into Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., for asking a similar question.
“With all due respect, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk who decided they’d go kill Americans,” she said, gesturing sharply with her hands to emphasize each sentence. “What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened.”
Clinton testified briefly before the Senate less than two weeks after the attack, an appearance that received considerable criticism from conservatives.
McCain said Clinton told the Senate “nothing” at that hearing.
“We were told absolutely nothing, all because it’s an investigation going on,” McCain said on the Senate floor Sept. 21, 2012.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., presided over the hearing on the Senate side, in place of out-going committee chair Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., whom President Obama has nominated to take over Clinton’s position as secretary of State. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, presided over the afternoon hearing.
This won’t be Clinton’s last trip to Capitol Hill. At the end of the Senate hearing, Menendez said that Clinton would be one of the people introducing Sen. Kerry at his confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee Thursday.
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