Hillary Clinton’s testimony before Congress on Wednesday had it all: laughter and tears, anger and poignancy. On one of her last days as Secretary of State—John Kerry could be confirmed as her successor within days—Clinton spent a long day answering often-hostile questions from two different oversight panels about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed the lives of four Americans.
Clinton’s testimony produced plenty of heat but little new light on the attacks. Some Republicans, first on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later the House Foreign Affairs Committee, charged that Clinton should be held responsible for inadequate security at the compound where Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed and suggested that she’d been part of a White House effort to mislead Congress and the public about the true nature of a terrorist attack that struck at the height of the presidential campaign.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said Clinton should have resigned following the attack and accused her of “a failure of leadership.”* Senator John McCain called Clinton’s answers “not satisfactory.” McCain said he was disappointed that the State Department, and particularly Clinton herself, had not been more aware of the dire security situation in Benghazi and the Tripoli embassy’s repeated cable requests for more security resources. Clinton insisted that those complaints had not risen to her level. Her department, she later told the House panel, receives “1.4 million cables, all of them addressed to me. I don’t read them all.”
As they have for months, Republicans harped on United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice’s comments on various television networks the Sunday following the attack that it had been the product of a protest gone awry. Clinton repeatedly pointed out that at the time of the attack U.S. embassies in Yemen, Cairo, Tunis and Khartoum were all under assault because of violent protests over an American-made video mocking the Prophet Mohamed, so it took “several days” to fully determine that the Benghazi attack was not related to those protests. She also noted that an independent panel’s report on the attack found that what exactly happened in Benghazi remains murky and many of the lingering questions may never be fully answered.
But it was Republican charges that the administration had distorted the facts about Benghazi for political reasons that drew Clinton’s real ire. During one exchange with Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Clinton pounded her hand on the table. “[P]eople have accused Ambassador Rice and the administration of misleading Americans… nothing could be further from the truth,” Clinton said, her voice rising. “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who 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, Senator.”
Democrats, meanwhile, focused on Republican cuts to State Department funding, which they say led to the security lapses in Benghazi. Clinton repeatedly noted that her department’s requests have been consistently underfunded, sometimes by as much as 10%. Panel Democrats also noted that other intelligence lapses have cost America more dearly. “We were told by every level of government here there were Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that justified a war,” said Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. “We are still searching for those weapons. They didn’t exist. Thousands of Americans lost their lives. Let’s hold a hearing on that.”
Clinton said the State Department is implementing all 29 recommendations the independent panel suggested to prevent another Benghazi-type attack from happening again. She also said she appointed the first ever deputy secretary of State responsible for high-risks posts and implemented an annual review by the secretary over such posts.
But Clinton was passionate when talking about her hope that the attack would not cause America to retreat from places like Benghazi. “When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences: Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, our security at home is threatened,” she said. She said the Arab Spring represented not only an ongoing risk, but an opportunity for the U.S. — a chance to help build democracy across the Middle East and northern Africa.
And she became especially emotional when talking about how hard it was calling and meeting with the families of the Americans who lost their lives. “For me, this is not just a matter of policy. It’s personal. I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews,” she said, her voice breaking. “I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children.”
Clinton strove to close the book on the “political football” of Benghazi. And perhaps she succeeded. Republicans looking to score new points against Clinton or Obama probably left the hearings disappointed. And with Rice sidelined and Clinton about to depart, further hearings on the tragic episode seem unlikely. There may be important security issues left to discuss, but Benghazi without politics is a much less interesting subject to Capitol Hill.
There does however remain the question of presidential politics—not so much Obama’s re-election campaign, but Clinton’s own potential aspirations. As Clinton leaves her post, she is among the most popular politicians in America, with 65% percent of Americans approving of her, according to a January Pew poll, and just 29% holding an unfavorable view of her. For the moment, it does not appear that Benghazi will be an obstacle to a potential new chapter in Hillary Clinton’s epic political story. “You will be sorely missed, but I hope not for too long,” Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, slyly suggested. “I wish you well in your future endeavors,” quipped Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican. “Mostly.”
*Watch the exchange between Clinton and Sen. Paul below: