Clinton Fires Back At Critics Over Benghazi Attack

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WASHINGTON
(AP) — 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 GOP
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.

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.

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 defense 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.

Sen.
Ron Johnson, R-Wis., 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? It is our job to figure out what happened and
do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”

If
Johnson's comments drew an irritated response from Clinton, she notably
ignored Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., when he said he would have fired her if
he had been in charge and found that she had not read cables from her
team in Libya asking for more security. Paul is a potential 2016
presidential candidate.

“Had I been president
and found you did not read the cables from Benghazi and from Ambassador
Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post,” Paul said. “I think
it's inexcusable.”

Clinton and other officials
have testified that requests for additional security did not reach her
level, and a scathing independent review of the matter sharply
criticized four senior State Department officials who have been relieved
of their duties.

“I did not see these requests. They did not come to me. I did not approve them. I did not deny them,” she said.

Later,
before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan
of South Carolina repeatedly challenged Clinton's claim to have looked
at the tragedy with “clear eyes,” saying she should have personally
ensured security at the mission.

He said
Clinton had “let the consulate become a death trap” in denying requests
for additional security and called it “malpractice.”

Clinton
said she could have let the review board's report remain classified and
told Congress “goodbye” before leaving office. But she said, it's “not
who I am. It's not what I do.”

Absent from the
Senate hearing was Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the man tapped to succeed
Clinton, who is leaving the administration after four years. Kerry,
defeated by George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, is
expected to win swift Senate approval. Clinton is to introduce him at
his confirmation hearing on Thursday.

Politics
play an outsized role in any appearance by Clinton, who was defeated by
Barack Obama in a hard-fought battle for the 2008 Democratic
presidential nomination. She is the subject of constant speculation
about a possible bid in 2016.

A former New
York senator and the wife of former President Bill Clinton, she is a
polarizing figure but is ending her tenure at the State Department with
high favorability ratings. A poll last month by the Pew Research Center
for the People & the Press found 65 percent of Americans held a
favorable impression of her, compared with 29 percent unfavorable.

On
the panel at the Senate hearing were two possible 2016 Republican
presidential candidates – Florida's Marco Rubio and Paul, a new member
of the committee – as well as John McCain of Arizona, who was defeated
by Obama in November 2008.

Clinton, 65, did
little to quiet the presidential chatter earlier this month when she
returned to work after her hospitalization. On the subject of
retirement, she said, “I don't know if that is a word I would use, but
certainly stepping off the very fast track for a little while.”

In
a second round of questioning on Wednesday, Clinton testified before
the House Foreign Affairs Committee where Republican members pressed her
on why cables and other memos about security deficiencies in Benghazi
seemed to be ignored.

“The dots here were
connected ahead of time. The State Department saw this was coming,” said
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the panel. “The State
Department didn't act.”

Clinton told senators
the department is implementing the 29 recommendations of the review
board and going beyond the proposals, with a special focus on
high-threat posts.

“Nobody is more committed
to getting this right,” she said. “I am determined to leave the State
Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure.”

Clinton
had been due to testify in December but postponed her appearances after
fainting, falling and suffering a concussion while recovering from a
stomach virus that left her severely dehydrated. She was then diagnosed
with a blood clot near her brain and returned to work only on Jan. 7.

She
won bipartisan well-wishes on her recovery, but while Democrats were
quick to praise her for accomplishments as secretary of state,
Republicans then hit her with withering criticism.

“It's wonderful to see you in good health and combative as ever,” said McCain.

But
in the same breath, he dismissed her explanation of events, the
administration's response to warnings about the deteriorating security
situation in Libya and even the attention paid to Libya after rebels
toppled Moammar Gadhafi. “The answers, frankly, that you've given this
morning are not satisfactory to me,” McCain said.

To
McCain, a friend that Clinton served with in the Senate, she replied
matter-of-factly: “We just have a disagreement. We have a disagreement
about what did happen and when it happened with respect to explaining
the sequence of events.”

Some Democrats raised the point that Congress had cut funding for embassy security.

“We
have to get our act together,” she told the panels, chiding House GOP
members for recently stripping $1 billion in security aid from the
hurricane relief bill and the Senate panel for failing for years to
produce a spending authorization bill.

In
something of a valedictory, Clinton noted her robust itinerary in four
years and her work, nearly 1 million miles and 112 countries.

“My
faith in our country and our future is stronger than ever. Every time
that blue and white airplane carrying the words “United States of
America” touches down in some far-off capital, I feel again the honor it
is to represent the world's indispensable nation. And I am confident
that, with your help, we will continue to keep the United States safe,
strong, and exceptional.”

Rep. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., expressed incredulity that the independent review
board did not interview Clinton for its extensive report. She also
complained about the department's “false narrative” that four employees
lost their jobs over the attack.

“There's just been a shuffling of the deck chairs,” said Ros-Lehtinen.

Clinton
said earlier that she was not asked to speak to the review board but
would have been available. She said the four employees have been removed
from their jobs and have been placed on administrative leave, but
federal rules prevent the department from taking more drastic steps.

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.

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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