Government & Politics

Republicans land only glancing blows against Hillary Clinton in daylong rehash of Benghazi

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, testified much of the day Thursday on Capitol Hill before the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, testified much of the day Thursday on Capitol Hill before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. The Associated Press

Republicans on the House Benghazi committee made headway Thursday in depicting former secretary of state Hillary Clinton as disengaged from the security needs of a key diplomatic outpost in Libya and curiously receptive to the lengthy policy musings sent to her private email by a friend and sometimes political adviser.

But during hours of fastballs flung at Clinton by GOP lawmakers, and softballs lobbed by Democrats, very little was added to the already-extensive factual and investigative record of what happened, and why, in Benghazi before, during and after the terrorist attacks there in September 2012.

Much of the questioning rehashed issues that were settled in other hearings and official inquiries about Benghazi over the past several years. Clinton repeated her categorical denials of the long-debunked charge that she told the Defense Department to “stand down” attempts to launch a military rescue.

Questions that Clinton addressed in testimony nearly three years ago were repeated: What did Clinton do on the night of the attacks? With whom did she speak then and the next day? What did she say?

Republicans on the committee spent much of their time focused on the precarious nature of the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi and the requests for additional security from the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. Clinton said she considered Stevens not only a Libya expert but also a friend.

As those requests increased during the summer of 2012, Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama asked Clinton, “Why did you not pick up the phone and call your friend” and ask him what he needed?

Stevens was among four Americans killed in Benghazi, when militants first rushed into the diplomatic compound and later launched a mortar attack on a secret CIA facility nearby. Local guards hired to protect the diplomatic perimeter melted away, and five armed U.S. Diplomatic Security guards inside the compound were overwhelmed.

Disputing that she was inattentive to security needs, Clinton repeated her response to similar questions during testimony in early 2013. Security discussions for individual overseas posts “will not ordinarily come before the secretary of state, and they did not in this case. … The Diplomatic Security professionals reviewing requests … in war zones and hot spots … have great expertise in keeping people safe.

“I was not going to second-guess them,” Clinton said. Asked later what her direct responsibility was for the deaths, she said: “I was responsible for sending Chris Stevens to Libya. I was responsible for supporting a temporary facility in Benghazi.”

“I was not responsible for specific security requests and decisions,” she said. Stevens himself, Clinton said, never contacted her directly about security issues, and he strongly supported the continued operation of the Benghazi mission.

Neither Clinton nor committee Democrats disputed the conclusions of the Accountability Review Board, which said after a late 2012 investigation that the “security posture . . . was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”

The ARB faulted the State Department for maintaining the facility as a “temporary” outpost that made it ineligible for funds dedicated to security improvements of recognized diplomatic facilities and for a climate within the department in which separate decisions on policy and security were “stove-piped” among different officials without any sense of “shared responsibility.”

Clinton also repeated the ARB findings that numerous Benghazi requests had been fulfilled, including heightening the surrounding walls and the presence of five Diplomatic Security guards accompanying Stevens on his visit there from the embassy in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

But although more guards might have helped, Clinton said, security experts she has since consulted were “not sure if anything could have stopped the attackers.”

In response to ARB recommendations, a new department position was created to monitor security at “high risk” posts. The White House also holds weekly meetings to coordinate diplomatic security among the State and Defense departments and the intelligence community.

In different ways, and with different supporting documents, Republican lawmakers tried to tie Clinton’s influence over and support for the Obama administration’s policy in Libya directly to the failure to protect the Benghazi facility.

They charged that she overruled State Department experts who warned of the historical failure of regime change and opposed U.S. participation in the 2011 air campaign in support of the rebel force that overthrew the government of dictator Moammar Gaddafi, eventually leaving Libya in its current chaos.

“You initiated a policy to put the United States into Libya. … You were the prime mover. … You were concerned about image, you were concerned about credit,” Republican Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois told her. “If Libya unraveled, you had a lot to lose.”

“How is it possible that these urgent requests” for additional security assistance “did not break through to the upper level?” Roskam asked, concluding that “I think your attention waned. … I think that this was what was going on. To admit a need for more security … didn’t fit your narrative.”

Clinton categorically denied the charge, calling it a “disservice” to the people making “these hard security decisions.”

Again and again, Clinton sought to place Benghazi in the long line of attacks against U.S. overseas missions and the dangers faced by those who man them. In particular, she noted the 1983 attacks that killed 258 Americans in Beirut and the 12 Americans, among nearly 200 others, who died in 1998 when terrorists blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

“I appreciate, I really do, the intensity of your feelings” about Stevens, Clinton told Roby. But “we have places in war zones … that are attacked and bombed.”

“I was the boss of ambassadors” and other officials in 270 diplomatic missions, she said. “I am very well aware of the dangers that are faced by our diplomats and development professionals. There was never a recommendation from Chris Stevens or anyone else to close Benghazi. . . . Sitting here in this large, beautiful meeting room, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, there should have been.’ But that was not the case.”

Those and many similar comments underlay an issue no one wanted to raise directly — Stevens’ unilateral decision to travel to Benghazi despite his descriptions of the tenuous security situation there. Clinton noted only that ambassadors do not normally ask permission or even notify the State Department of their plans to travel within countries where they are posted.

“Chris Stevens had an opportunity to reach me anytime he thought there was something of importance,” she said. He and others in Libya “very well understood the dangers that they were confronting. They did the best they could under the circumstances that they were confronting. Many of their [security] requests” were granted, Clinton said, while some were not.

Among the few apparently new documents referred to during the hearing were a Clinton email to her daughter, Chelsea, on the night of the attacks, and an internal State Department memorandum summarizing a telephone conversation between Clinton and her Egyptian counterpart the morning after. In both, Republicans said, Clinton said it was clear that a terrorist group had carried out the attacks.