– Defending her legacy and perhaps protecting her future, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced congressional committees over the killing of the US ambassador to Libya, with a performance that was at times fraught, at times angry, but always commanding.
The nation’s chief diplomat – strongly rumoured to harbour presidential ambitions – has been targeted by Republican critics since the raid on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the ambassador, Chris Stevens.
It has been alleged that Mrs Clinton sought to cover up the assault as a response to an anti-Islamic film rather than the terrorist attack it later proved to be, in order to reassure voters during last year’s presidential election that al-Qaeda had been largely defeated; and that her state department failed to properly protect its diplomats. Some had even accused her of faking her recent illness to avoid testifying to the committees.
In a statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began on Wednesday morning, Mrs Clinton declared remorse over the deaths and assumed full responsibility for them, struggling not to cry as she described standing by the President as their coffins were repatriated.
At first the questions were determinedly respectful, with even Republican senators prefacing questions by commenting on Mrs Clinton’s remarkable term as Secretary of State.
But Mrs Clinton allowed her anger to show during questioning from Senator Ron Johnson, who asked why she or her staff had not immediately called survivors to ask whether a protest had preceded the assault. Mrs Clinton replied that she did not want to interfere with the FBI investigation.
Senator Johnson suggested this was an excuse and the two spoke over one another with raised voices until he retreated under her anger.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” she said. “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, from my perspective, less important today looking backward as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice,” she said.
Senator Johnson withdrew.
Senator John McCain accused the State Department under Mrs Clinton of failing to provide Libya with the support needed to train its own forces, and said an attack of the sort that killed the Americans should have been foreseen. She disagreed.
Senator Rand Paul, the son of the Republican candidate Ron Paul, who is rumoured to have to take over his father’s political machine for the 2016 race, took Mrs Clinton to task. “I’m glad your accepting responsibility. I think that ultimately with your leaving, you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11, and I really mean that. Had I been president at the time…I would have relieved you of your post. I think it’s inexcusable,” he said.
During his lengthy question, Mrs Clinton variously cupped her chin in her hand, smiled or shuffled papers, occasionally glancing his way over her glasses. When he finished she remained unruffled and replied: “I believe in taking responsibility, and I have done so.”
Later in the day, Mrs Clinton addressed the House committee, which began by rejecting an independent review that found fault for the attack lay at assistant secretary level. It is not clear if the incident will blemish what is regarded in Washington as an otherwise highly successful term in the role, although a recent “Washington Post” poll found her credibility at 67% – a career high – and roughly double the the popularity of congressional Republicans – Nick O’Malley