WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s combative answers to Congress in hearings investigating the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya raised questions about whether her department did all it could to safeguard diplomats overseas.
Clinton erupted when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked whether, in the days following the attack, the American public was “misled” by State Department and White House officials who falsely blamed the attack on spontaneous protests.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” she said, raising her voice and waving her arms. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Johnson told USA TODAY: “How do you initiate a proper response if you don’t know what transpired? … How do you tell the truth to the American people if you don’t know the facts?”
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed when terrorists armed with machine guns and rockets invaded the consulate compound and set it ablaze. The attack occurred as several violent protests broke out at U.S. embassies in Egypt and Tunisia over a YouTube video that denigrated Islam’s prophet Mohammed. No protest preceded the attack in Benghazi.
Clinton, who testified before a Senate panel in the morning and later before a House panel, promised to improve security for State Department officials in North Africa and around the world. “I take responsibility,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure.”
Democrats focused on moving forward. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, praised Clinton for moving quickly to implement recommendations made by the independent review board to improve security.
“Rather than point at others for those deficiencies, you stepped up,” she said. “I am grateful.”
Danielle Pletka, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has been critical of the State Department’s handling of security and the dissemination of information after the attack, said that Clinton’s testimony showed that the United States is still not ready to deal with the threats it’s facing.
To find justice and improve security, “you have to to understand why it happened and what went wrong,” Pletka said.
Stevens had repeatedly asked for more security at Benghazi, and there were several signs of trouble leading up to the attack: Security forces had reported the consulate was being watched, and the British and International Red Cross moved out of the city because of the militant threat.
Clinton has said she did not see cables from Stevens and his security chief asking for more security and did not deny the requests.
Pletka agreed that it is not unusual for a secretary of State not to see routine cables. Even so, “are terrorism and al-Qaeda priorities for this administration? Up to a point. At the time, we were being told al-Qaeda are on their heels,” she said.
Clinton also suggested that a lack of funds played a role in the refusal of Stevens’ requests for more security. But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., pointed out that Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb had already testified that budget cuts had no role in the denial of security requests.
Clinton said the independent board’s review said budget issues had an effect on the decision.
Clinton was also asked why U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice — and not she — went on Sunday talk shows five days after the attack to explain what happened. At the time, Rice blamed the attack on a protest and said it was not terrorism.
Clinton testified Wednesday that she was busy with more important matters.
“I was focused on keeping our people safe,” she said, referring to another attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen taking place at the time.
Clinton’s answers show that the Obama administration’s priorities are misplaced, Pletka said.
“Obama’s priority on Sept. 11, 2012, was to get re-elected and sweep all problems or potential problems under the rug,” she said. “There’s a general vibe throughout the administration that the White House is not going to look kindly on anything that implies we’re facing a higher threat level, that killing Osama bin Laden was not enough, that the Arab Spring is not being managed well.”
At the House hearing, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., asked why no one was significantly disciplined, despite State Department claims that employees responsible for poor security in Benghazi would be disciplined.
“There has just been a shuffling of the deck chairs,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Do you find it acceptable that officials who were responsible remain employed at the State Department?”
Clinton said all four individuals have been removed from their jobs and put on administrative leave.
Clinton said the review board that looked into the incident found that under U.S. law, “unsatisfactory leadership is not satisfactory for a breach of duty. I have put forth to the Congress and Senate to fix that problem going forward.”
Pletka said she found that alarming.
“When someone dies as a result of your error in judgement you’re not responsible and should not be fired?” Pletka said. “This is the Washington culture. There is no accountability.”