“I take responsibility” for what happened on Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Clinton told CNN’s Elise Labott, referring to the attack that left Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. Clinton said neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden was involved in security decisions. “I’m responsible for diplomats,” she added.
Clinton’s comments came five days after State Department officials testified in a hearing on Capitol Hill that the Benghazi attack was unrelated to protests that day over a California-made movie that mocked the Prophet Muhammad and that it had, indeed, been the work of terrorists.
In the first days after the attack, Administration officials, including U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, said the attack had been part of protests that swept the Middle East. The reversal left the Administration open to criticism that it had, at worst, tried to cover up a terrorist incident or, at best, fumbled its initial response to the violence.
At the vice-presidential debate last Thursday, GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan accused Vice President Joe Biden and the Obama Administration of ignoring requests from Benghazi for extra security. Biden responded by saying, “We did not know” about the requests. Clinton on Monday reaffirmed Biden’s statement, saying the White House was not involved in funding decisions for embassy security.
Clinton also called conflicting statements in the days following the attack “confusion” and “fog of war” that always follow such events. She described an “intense, long ordeal” for State Department staffers struggling to piece together what happened.
As my colleague Michael Crowley noted on Monday, the GOP is much keener to attack Obama and Biden, who are on the ticket in November, than the Secretary of State herself. Clinton is one of the most popular figures in the country right now, and slinging mud at a woman wouldn’t help Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as he fights to make headway with female voters.
Clinton’s statement, a day before Obama and Romney are scheduled for round two in the presidential debates, frees the President up to lay blame on the State Department for the breach of security and on the Republicans for leading the charge to cut some $500 million for embassy security in recent years. It also deprives Romney of his most persuasive argument yet that the Commander in Chief who ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden is in fact weak on security. Republicans in recent weeks have pointed to Benghazi as evidence of the Middle East “unraveling” under Obama’s watch. And polls show Obama’s job-approval rating on foreign policy issues has fallen from a double-digit spread between approve and disapprove over the summer to within the margin of error since the attack.
Republicans on Monday night were quick to dismiss Clinton’s comments. “We must remember that the events of Sept. 11 were preceded by an escalating pattern of attacks this year in Benghazi, including a bomb that was thrown into our consulate in April, another explosive device that was detonated outside of our consulate in June and an assassination attempt on the British ambassador,” said Republican senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte in a joint statement. “If the President was truly not aware of this rising threat level in Benghazi, then we have lost confidence in his national-security team, whose responsibility it is to keep the President informed. But if the President was aware of these earlier attacks in Benghazi prior to the events of Sept. 11, 2012, then he bears full responsibility for any security failures that occurred. The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the Commander in Chief. The buck stops there.”
Clinton said she chose this moment, more than a month after the attack, to finally speak out because the tragedy was becoming increasingly politicized. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha,” she said.
Clinton’s admission tarnishes her legacy as one of the most successful and persuasive secretaries of state in recent history. And it would become a political liability for her should she decide to run for President in 2016. That said, Clinton made a persuasive case that while the world is a dangerous place, diplomacy will always carry risks, and attacks like the one in Benghazi should not force America to pull back. “We can’t not engage,” she said. “We cannot retreat.”