WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered fiery rejoinders Wednesday to Republican critics of the Obama administration's handling of the deadly attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, facing off with lawmakers who included potential 2016 presidential rivals.
At times emotional and frequently combative, Clinton rejected Republican suggestions in two congressional hearings that the administration tried to mislead the country about the Sept. 11 attack that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. She insisted the State Department is moving swiftly and aggressively to strengthen security at diplomatic posts worldwide.
In her last formal testimony before Congress as America's top diplomat -- but perhaps not her last time on the political stage -- Clinton once again took responsibility for the department's missteps and failures leading up to the assault. But she also said that requests for more security at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi didn't reach her desk, and reminded lawmakers that they have a responsibility to fund security-related budget requests.
Her testimony followed more than three months of Republican charges that the Obama administration ignored signs of a deteriorating security situation and cast an act of terrorism as mere protests over an anti-Muslim video in the heat of a presidential election. U.S. officials suspect that militants linked to al-Qaida carried out the attack. Three weeks after her release from a New York hospital -- admitted for complications after a concussion -- Clinton was at times defiant, complimentary and willing to chastise lawmakers during more than 5 1/2 hours of testimony before two separate committees. She tangled with some who could be rivals in 2016 if she decides to seek the presidency again as she did in 2008, losing the Democratic nomination to President Barack Obama.
Her voice cracking at one point, Clinton said the attack and the aftermath were highly personal tragedies for the families of the victims who died -- Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty -- as well as herself.
"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 and the wives left alone to raise their children," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a packed hearing.
Clearly annoyed with Republican complaints about the initial explanation for the attack, she rose to the defence of 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.
Clinton said, "People were trying in real time to get to the best information." And she said her own focus was on looking ahead on how to improve security rather than revisiting the talking points and Rice's comments. As Republican criticism of her mounted, Rice was forced to withdraw her name as a possible successor to Clinton.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, pressed her on why "we were misled that there were supposedly protests and something sprang out of that, an assault sprang out of that."
"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," she said, her voice rising and quivering with anger as she and Johnson spoke over each other.
"Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided they would go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?..."
-- The Associated Press