Clinton combative, 'commanding' during testimony to Congress on Benghazi attack

Here and Now

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in her last formal congressional testimony on Capitol Hill. (Photo by U.S. Department of State).

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave emotional testimony in what will likely be her last appearance before Congress as the U.S. Secretary of State.

She was testifying about her colleagues who died in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the events leading up to those events on Sept. 11, 2012.

“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 said.

But when Sen. Ron Johnson asked how the four, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed and why the administration first said the attacks were by protestors and later revealed it was militants, Clinton was combative.

“With all do 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 decided they'd 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,” she said.

Clinton said rather than revisiting talking points, including a now controversial television appearance by Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, her focus was on looking ahead, and how to improve security.

Anne Gearan, diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, says the hearing was both emotional and testy at times.

"Clinton, who is a very cool customer, always very collected, got pretty angry,” she said. “Republicans piled on her a bit and Democrats mostly used the opportunity to praise her service as sort of a valedictory.”

Rick Klein, senior Washington editor for ABC World News, says if this was her valedictory appearance before Congress, it was a virtuoso performance.

"We will not forget this day in Hillary Clinton's long career in public life for quite sometime,” he said. “She was passionate, she was engaged, she was thoughtful, she was emotional talking about her lost colleagues and she was clearly ready for some combat on the politics of this.”

In her prepared testimony, Clinton said she quickly identified that heavily armed militants had carried out the attacks on Benghazi.  The next day, President Barack Obama referred to the attacks as an act of terror.

But whether the administration accurately understood the attacks to have been an act of terror on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Gearan says, has been hotly debated.

“This has been a bone of contention between the White House, Obama administration and Congressional Republicans from the get go, along with Mitt Romney during the teeth of the presidential campaign,” Clinton told Congress.

Gearan said Republicans have questioned why Rice, and not Clinton, the senior diplomat for the Obama administration, appeared on TV five days after the event to discuss the attacks.

“Why Rice was given the talking points she was given, whether those talking points were massaged to give maximum political cover to the White House, there were a lot of those questions today, or a least that was the backdrop to a lot of those questions, but no new answers," she said.

In response to the line of questioning, Clinton says, there was a lot of confusion over what happened and intelligence was changing.

“Clinton said she saw nothing to contradict what Rice had said a few days later and that Rice was giving the best information she had when she had it and shouldn't be hung out to dry as a result,” she said.

Clinton rejected the notion that politics played a role in altering the information that came out of the State Department and the U.N. after the attack.

"She turned the story pretty quickly to the fact that Congress has not acted on requests for further security and further aid in the region that would've helped prevent something like this, but she was clearly not interested in looking back,” Klein said.

Clinton said her attention is entirely on the path forward and the security of U.S. consulates and embassies. Klein said this will be a memorable event in Clinton's career.

"I think this was an in-command performance by Secretary Clinton,” he said. “Keep in mind, this is a woman that's been with important titles in front of her name for two decades in Washington.”

Though this may be one of the last times we see her for sometime, Klein says, in this final appearance on Capitol Hill she’s reminding people how in command she is.

“I think it impressed a lot of observers with the command, the energy, the emotion, the passion that she brought to the testimony today. It was vintage Hillary Clinton and I think it's an appearance that we're going to be talking about for some time,” he said.

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