Live Blog: Clinton Faces Congress About Deadly Benghazi Attack

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will testify before two congressional panels Wednesday about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

More than four months after four Americans, including the ambassador, were killed in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will testify today before two congressional panels.

First up, a 9 a.m. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, where Clinton will face Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other Republicans who have expressed anger over the Obama administration and State Department’s conduct before, during and after the Sept. 11 attack. At 2 p.m., the GOP-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee gets its turn to grill the outgoing secretary of state.

5:01 p.m. — That’s it, folks. Rep. Royce bangs his gavel and ends the House hearing. But not before noting he’s worried the independent panel Clinton set up to review the Benghazi attack “failed to capture the whole picture.” Thanks to all who stopped by our live blog. Check back next Thursday (Jan. 31), when we’ll do this again as the Senate Armed Services Committee grills former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s controversial pick to become defense secretary. Have a good evening. And stay warm.  — John T. Bennett

ANALYSIS, Part III: Clinton likely will be criticized for part of her harsh response to Sen. Johnson. GOP political strategists can easily turn part of her emotional comment for a television ad. How she worded the now-viral response could have been her lone big error of the day. — John T. Bennett

ANALYSIS, Part II: The main takeaways from five and a half hours of Clinton’s testimony are: 1) U.S. officials and lawmakers are — after the Benghazi attack, the need for French intervention in Mali, and the recent deadly hostage-taking in Algeria — coming to the realization that a long-held reluctance by Republicans and Democrats to insert a big U.S. military and intelligence footprint in Africa is quickly changing. Check out our piece on this collective realization. 2) As the next note fully explains, Clinton will walk out of the Rayburn House Office Building for likely the last time as secretary of state nearly totally unscathed by Benghazi politically. And that could have a big impact on the 2016 presidential campaign. — John T. Bennett

ANALYSIS, Part I: Intercepts is nearing the end of its live coverage. But I wanted to note something everyone should keep in mind coming out of today: For over four hours today, Republican lawmakers have attempted to damage Clinton, a potential/likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. But none have made even a dent in Clinton the politician, much less the widely respected and competent secretary of state. Unless something changes in the final minutes of the House hearing, Clinton will have emerged from the Benghazi attack and its partisan aftermath mostly unscathed politically.  — John T. Bennett

4:42 p.m. — Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., asks Clinton whether Susan Rice’s comments that the attack was produced by a spontaneous protest. She responds that is not where the evidence points at this time, but cautions that an ongoing FBI probe should be allowed to gather all possible facts.  Clinton says the process that led to Rice’s comments was “an intelligence community product.” But she says all U.S. officials who spoke publicly did so after reviewing the same IC-compiled talking points. (Note: Earlier in this session, Clinton noted the House and Senate Intelligence committees are working with U.S. intel agencies to compile a timeline showing just how those controversial — and apparently false — talking points were crafted.  — John T. Bennett

4:34 p.m. — Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., asks whether DoD failed to do everything possible in response to the attack. Clinton points to the ARB’s findings, which cleared the military of any poor response.  — John T. Bennett

3:50 p.m. — Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, asks, in short: Who done it? Clinton says an individual is under surveillance by Tunisian security officials in that country. With a frown, Poe sourly says as his time expires that no one has yet been arrested for the attack.  — John T. Bennett

3:47 p.m. — Washington loves a strategy-writing exercise. Congress orders them frequently. Some entity within the vast Defense Department bureaucracy seems to complete one every few months. Other national security agencies conduct them routinely, as well. And the storage rooms of think tanks are crowded with those organizations’ strategic work. What’s one needed outcome of the Benghazi attack? Of course. Clinton says a “comprehensive strategy” that reflects current and future threats needs to be completed.  — John T. Bennett

3:36 p.m. — Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who Clinton credited for her work on Africa issues, asks which Africa-based terrorist group is the biggest threat to America. Clinton says all such groups must be taken seriously. None of those groups have the ability, today that is, to plan and conduct strikes inside the United States, Clinton tells Bass. “But we have a lot of facilities” in and around North Africa, she warned, citing the recent deadly hostage-taking in Algeria. — John T. Bennett

3:32 p.m. — Wilson, with his time expiring, asks Clinton why Marines were not stationed at Benghazi. She responds that federal law requires Leathernecks only be deployed to diplomatic facilities to protect classified information — not U.S. personnel. Note: During the Senate hearing this morning, senators from both political parties seemed in agreement that Congress should consider amending such laws.  — John T. Bennett

3:28 p.m.– “I have to confess here in public that going on the Sunday shows is not my favorite thing to do. … It’s just not something I jump to do. I felt strongly we had a lot to manage and respond to, which is what I chose to do,” Clinton said in response to a question from Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. He wondered to Clinton why she, as Susan Rice allegedly said, declined to represent the Obama administration on those Sept. 16 political talk shows. Had Clinton not declined, Wilson said, Rice might not have spouted the comments that so angered Republicans. Reaction: And it could have allowed Rice to become secretary of state, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to become secretary of defense. But my reporting suggests GOP members did not want Rice at State. — John T. Bennett

3:20 p.m. — Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, suggests it is wrong to criticize Congress for cutting State Department funding, and to say that played a role in the poor security at the Benghazi compound. Clinton did not have a chance to respond…because Chabot used all of his five minutes of allotted question time. Reaction: It’s unfortunate Chabot left her no time to reply to what could have been an important policy and funding statement as federal spending is such a big issue right now, and will be for many months to come.  — John T. Bennett

**3:10 p.m. — Nothing new from a spirited but uneventful exchange between Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and the secretary. But for the political intrigue fans out there: Rohrabacher tried to press Clinton on why some State and administration officials, as he and GOP members see it, were slow to call the Benghazi incident a terrorist attack. Clinton had none of this attempt, the fifth or sixth or seventh — I’ve lost count — of the day. She told him she and the president called it such the morning after the attack. Rohrabacher also attempted to inject a “monitor” located somewhere in Foggy Bottom that was showing the attack “in real time.” Clinton said there was “no monitor” and “no real time,” suggesting the official who told the House panel as much was referring to a telephone connection between State and Benghazi.  — John T. Bennett

2:56 p.m. — Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., notes there are many, many more security personnel in the region than just 11 years ago. But how to use them is a management issue, he says. He wants to know when Clinton became aware of requests from the now-late U.S. Ambassador Stevens’ requests for more security. She said none of his cables “came to my attention.” — John T. Bennett

**2:44 p.m. — Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., says it is “outrageous” that the ARB group did not question Clinton. She also wants to know why State said employees dubbed most responsible for Benghazi were not fired, and why Clinton and her top deputies allowed the public and Congress to believe they had been let go, as some media reports have stated. Clinton explains federal law states poor leadership is not a grounds for dismissal. Clinton says she has submitted legislation to change that. — John T. Bennett

**2:40 p.m. — Engel goes back to his opening comments about funding concerns. Clinton says although State’s prioritization of the funds it got, despite cuts, “was imperfect,” Congress did slash the department’s request. She makes a plea for transfer authority, which would allow State officials to move around already allocated funds to improve security at other similar diplomatic facilities across the globe. The Senate has granted this authority, she says, urging the House panel to follow suit. The outgoing secretary, a former Senate Armed Services Committee member, says a foriegn affairs authorization bill like the annual defense authorization measure would help “organize” things like security efforts and allow lawmakers “to really delve into” those issues. — John T. Bennett

2:35 p.m. — Clinton tells Royce she was aware of security concerns at the Benghazi facility prior to the Sept. 11 attack.  — John T. Bennett

2:23 p.m. — Clinton says “Benghazi didn’t happen in a vacuum.” Rather, it was part of growing instability across North Africa. “We need to work together to accelerate a diplomatic campaign to increase pressure on ‘al-Qaida in the Maghreb’ and similar groups,” Clinton said.  As my piece over on the mothership — DefenseNews.com — explains, that was the most important takeaway from this morning’s Senate hearing.  — John T. Bennett

2:13 p.m. — Engel criticizes House Republicans for slashing funding the last few years for things like diplomatic security. — John T. Bennett

2:11 p.m. — Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., says in an early shot at his GOP colleagues that President “Obama was no more responsible for the Benghazi attack than George W. Bush was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.” Reaction from this scribe, in a word: Wow. — John T. Bennett

2:01 p.m. — Welcome back. Secretary Clinton is smiling and has taken her seat in the Rayburn House Office Building, where the House Foreign Affairs Committee is set to grill her. The panel’s new chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., has gaveled the hearing in session. Royce says the Benghazi attack cannot lead to an American diplomatic “retreat” from troubling parts of the globe.  His panel wants to find out “where State Department management fell down.” Involvement in security issues “stopped at the assistant secretary level,” Royce said in his opening statement, suggesting that should change. — John T. Bennett

11:33 a.m. — Committee adjourns.  We’re working on multiple articles for DefenseNews.com that will tackle the events of the hearing, so please check back later.

**11:13 a.m. — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says “I would have relieved you from your post” over not reading all cables sent from Libya. Not to know of requests for security really, I think, cost these people their lives,” he said. Paul “doesn’t suspect your motives” were purposely negative, but calls it a “failure of leadership.” During the broadside, Clinton merely cleared her throat. She pointed him to the ARB review, noting that review did not determine anyone involved exercised “a failure of leadership.” Paul shoots back: “They never should have been sent in there without a military guard … under Defense Department command.” Paul said someone needs to make “an executive decisions” that includes attaching Marines to such U.S. facility in global hot spots. Clinton told Paul she insisted the ARB’s finding be made public is because she “believes in transparency and taking responsibility — and I’ve done that.” — John T. Bennett

**11:07 a.m. — Under questioning from a GOP senator about whether the Obama administration’s claim that the core al-Qaida cell in Pakistan has been “decimated,” Clinton provides a nuanced answer. “There has been the decimation of core al-Qaida … in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but we’ve got to deal with the offshoot organizations” in palces like Africa. Her repeated comments about emerging threats in Africa show the vast continent — especially in the north — will be a big focus of President Obama’s second term. — John T. Bennett

10:58 a.m. — Durbin raises transfer authority question, and mentions sequester as part of point on the need for funding.

“Some on the committee have already criticized the notion that this is about money,” Durbin said. “They might argue you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it. Madam Secretary, you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it unless the problem is lack of money.”

The sequester also rears its ugly heads.  Durbin cites $50 million dollar cut to overseas building funding as part of sequester.  That figure may in fact by low as OMB documents put figures for total cuts to Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance at $129 million back in the fall.

“Sequestration will be very damaging to the State Department and USAID if it does come to pass because it does throw the baby out with the bath,” Clinton said in response. –Zach Biggs

10:54 a.m. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., strikes back at McCain’s assertions that the American people should be informed immediately about events. “I do want to make one point for the record here, about whether the American people are told everything right away, in the right way, so that they can be fully informed,” Durbin said. “I’d like to refer to five words for them to reflect on: Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.” The comment elicited a nod from Clinton, and a grin and a nod from McCain, who seemed to be at least partially ceding the point. — Zach Biggs

10:53 a.m. — Clinton responded to McCain by saying “we just have a disagreement when it comes to explaining the sequence of events.” Officials did not interview State Department security agents who were at the scene for several days, and “we had no access to surveillance cameras for weeks, which helped answer a number of questions.” Clinton pointed out to McCain that Congress, for months last year, had placed holds on funds meant to provide assistance to Libya for things like security aid. “We were told it’s a wealthy nation,” she said. Congress and the executive branch “have got to get our act together!” she exclaimed. “We have got to work together.”

10:50 a.m. — Sen. McCain slammed Clinton, saying her answers so far have been “unsatisfactory to me.” He reiterated his question about why, on Sept. 11 of all days, there were no military assets either on site in Benghazi or available to respond more quickly. He calls Rice’s comments on the Sunday shows “false answers,” and says the administration should have known the attack was planned and not the product of a demonstration gone awry. “People don’t bring RPGs and mortars to a demonstration. That’s a fundamental,” he said. — John T. Bennett

**10:46 a.m. ” Wonderful to see you in good health and as combative as ever,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Clinton, referencing her exchange with Johnson. — John T. Bennett

10:38 a.m. — Clinton tells the panel the administration, in the immediate wake of the attack, did a poor job of explaining that “it wasn’t a clear picture” of just what happened. GOP lawmakers, and some Democrats, have complained the administration’s initial Hill briefings were vague at best. “We did not conclude until days after the attacks that there was no protest at all,” Clinton said.  — John T. Bennett

10:37 a.m. — Asked by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., about whether the agency is aware of threats when it should be, Clinton describes conscious recognition of the risks in Benghazi.

“I want to make clear that no one in the State Department, the intelligence community, any other agency, ever recommended that we close Benghazi,” Clinton said. “We were clear eyed about the threats and the dangers as they were developing in eastern Libya and in Benghazi.” – Zach Biggs

**10: 35 a.m. — A note on the Clinton-Johnson exchange: I’m sitting 10 or 15 yards behind Secretary Clinton. She yelled at Johnson. Her tone, in fact, got louder and more angry as she continued her comment. Seemed very calculated — and sincere.  — John T. Bennett

10:33 a.m. – When asked about doubts as to the claim that protesters had stormed the compound, Clinton again backs Rice.  “We all wish that nobody had raised doubts, but Ambassador Rice and all the other administration officials were speaking off of what had been determined were the most acceptable talking points.” – Zach Biggs

10:28  a.m. — Clinton describes that transfer authority for State to put more of its funds towards overseas building was in the Senate version of the Sandy relief bill, but was pulled from the House version and as such there’s no pending legislation that would provide the budget authority.  – Zach Biggs

**10:23 a.m. — In the most partisan portion of the hearing yet, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., charged the Obama administration sought to deliberately mislead the American people. Clinton says “nothing could be further from the truth” in regard to GOP charges that Rice and the White House were trying to mislead people. Johnson says “one phone call” could have led Rice to realize — and state on those Sunday shows — that it was a terrorist attack.  Johnson presses Clinton hard, and she strikes back. With a raised voice, Clinton roars: “The fact was we had four dead Americans  — was it an attack or four guys out for a walk!?” She said the focus among senior officials, in the wake of the attack, primarily was finding the attackers rather than immediately understanding why they conducted the attack.   — John T. Bennett

10:21 a.m. — Clinton says that she pushed the ARB to by direct, and that the next task is to continue pushing for their recommendations.

“Now we’ve got to act on it or shame on us” – Zach Biggs

10:20 a.m. — Clinton says State Department and Pentagon officials are in talks about bringing additional Marines into the diplomatic facility security realm. Specifically, the talks are focused on how many are needed “and what they would do,” she said. — John T. Bennett

10:08 a.m. — “We’re going to see more and more demands on AFRICOM,” Clinton said of U.S. Africa Command. “And that is something, I think, the House and Senate will have to address.”  — John T. Bennett

10:04 a.m. — Sen. James Risch, exactly one hour into the hearing, brings up Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador who so angered Republicans with her comments on Sunday morning talk shows several days after the Sept. 11 attack. She furthered angered them in a November briefing, and was forced to withdraw her name from consideration to become secretary of state during Obama’s second term.

Clinton somewhat forcefully tells the Idaho Republican “I was not focused on talking points. I was focused on keeping people safe. … I don’t think anyone in the administration was focused on that so much as what we should be doing.” Clinton, ever politically savvy, did note she quickly dubbed the Benghazi strike a “terrorist attack.” She told the panel the attack was “opportunistic and coordianted.”  — John T. Bennett

9:58 am. — Clinton warns the committee of the situation in Mali: “We are in for a struggle. But it is a necessary struggle.” Washington, however, “cannot allow northern Mali to become a safe haven [for al-Qaida]. You can’t say because they haven’t done anything they won’t do anything.” In a blunt statement, Clinton said “we have got to have a better strategy.” — John T. Bennett

9:55 a.m. –Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., raises and answers the funding question again.

“To me I was not disappointed to hear the co-chairs say, ‘congress must do its part,’” Boxer said.  “Frankly I think that it’s a no brainer and the fact that we would even have a problem with it to me doesn’t make any sense.  I hope we can work to get together to get the resources that we need for security.”

Clinton responded by emphasizing the funding need.

“Since 2007 the department has consistently requested greater funding for embassy construction and diplomatic security, with the exception of 2010, congress has consistently enacted less than requested,” Clinton said.  “Most notably in 2012 the department received $340 million less than requested, close to 10 percent less than the request.”

Clinton also mentioned that State has requested the opportunity to transfer funds to support construction, a process that has been held up in the house.  Boxer responded with an audible “jeez.” — Zach Fryer-Biggs

9:47 a.m. — U.S. faces a spreading extremist threat in North Africa and beyond. Warns new “democracies” in region are new to running countries and providing security — including to American diplomatic facilities. — John T. Bennett

9:43 a.m. — Sen. Corker says he has read numerous diplomatic cables that came from U.S. personnel in Libya before the attack, telling Clinton he doesn’t understand why more security wasn’t provided. “These people were screaming out for more security.”

Clinton responds that she “didn’t see those requests. I didn’t approve them. I didn’t deny them. These requests do not ordinarily come to the secretary of state.” But, she said she is trying to put in place a process to change that, and install new deputy assistant secretary for high threats.  — John T. Bennett

9:40 a.m. — In response to a question from Menendez, Clinton gives blow-by-blow of her Sept. 11.

“Regarding what I was doing on September 11, I was at the State Department all day and late into the night.  During most of the day prior to getting notice of the attack on our compound in Benghazi we were very focused on our embassy in Cairo, that was under assault by a group of protestors.  We were assessing the security of our embassy.  That is certainly, for those who have been there, well defensed.  But there were crowds that were intent upon trying to scale the wall and we were in close communication with our team in Cairo.”

“I was notified of the attack shortly after 4 pm.  Over the following hours we were in continuous meetings and conversations both within the department, with our team in Tripoli with the interagency and internationally.”

“I instructed our senior department officials and our diplomatic security personnel to consider every option, to just break down the doors of the Libyan officials to get as much security support as we possibly could to coordinate with them.”

“It was a constant ongoing discussion and sets of meetings.  I spoke with President Obama later in the evening to bring him up to date, to get his perspective.”

Clinton went on to list a variety of national security officials with whom she had communicated.  Her mention of discussion with the Libyans seeking greater support echoes one of the ARB report findings, that there was too much reliance on Libyan forces who were not well positioned to confront a meaningful assault. — Zach Biggs

9:35 a.m. — Secretary Clinton provides her account of how she handled the response to the attack. “I directed our response from the State Department and stayed in close contact with officials from across our government and the Libyan government,” she said.  “No delays in decision-making. No denials of support from Washington or from the military.”

“I immediately ordered a review of our security posture around the world, with particular scrutiny for high-threat posts.  We asked the Department of Defense to join Interagency Security Assessment Teams and to dispatch hundreds of additional Marine Security Guards. I named the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for High Threat Posts, so Missions in dangerous places get the attention they need. And we reached out to Congress to help address physical vulnerabilities, including risks from fire, and to hire additional Diplomatic Security personnel.”

Clinton also mentions protests around the region, hinting at what caused some of the confusion over whether the attack was related to a protest. “You may recall that in that same period, we also saw violent attacks on our embassies in Cairo, Sanaa, Tunis, and Khartoum, as well as large protests outside many other posts where thousands of our diplomats serve,” she said.

Clinton adds that of the 29 recommendations in the ARB report, all are underway and “fully 85 percent are on track to be completed by the end of March, with a number completed already.” — Zach Fryer-Biggs

9:30 a.m. — Secretary Clinton’s voice breaks as she gets emotional, nearly crying, telling the panel this matter “is personal” for her because she stood beside President Obama when the bodies of the slain Americans returned to the U.S. She gets more emotional as she notes she “put my arms around” the family members of the four dead Americans. A powerful moment that brought a still silence over the Hart hearing room.

9:25 a.m. —  Clinton again takes responsibility for the attack: “As I have said many times since September 11, I take responsibility,” Clinton said. “Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure.”

Clinton also seems to be heading off criticism about the administration’s categorization of the attack, which some have described as falsely suggesting no terrorists were involved. “The very next morning, I told the American people that ‘heavily armed militants assaulted our compound’ and vowed to bring them to justice,” Clinton said. “And I stood with President Obama in the Rose Garden as he spoke of ‘an act of terror.’” — Zach Fryer-Biggs

9:23 a.m. — “Our security professionals get it right 99 percent of the time,” Clinton says in her opening statement, noting that’s why she “trusts them with my life.” — John T. Bennett

9:16 a.m. — Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., calls a briefing the Obama administration provided lawmakers last fall on the attack one where the intelligence community “said more than nothing.” Corker called it “a bizarre briefing,” in which “there was a lot of spin from the White House.” The GOP senator voiced concerns that the briefing “represented a denial of the world as it is,” and said he hopes the aftermath will “give us an opportunity to develop a policy for the world as it is today.”  –John T. Bennett

9:10 a.m. — Sen. Menendez says, in part, the lack of security at the Benghazi facility was a result of the State Department being “resource challenged.” — John T. Bennett

9:09 a.m. — State Department needs to determine which of its diplomatic posts are highest risk, and take new steps to secure them, Menendez says. He says a lack of such work helped lead to the Benghazi attack. — John T. Bennett

9:07 a.m. — Menendez immediately jumps into the question of funding for overseas construction following a polite at-a-boy for Clinton’s cooperation with the committee. “I would add that congress is not without responsibility here,” Menendez said. “We also have an obligation to do our part to comply with the Administrative (sic) Review Board’s recommendations. It is my intention to work with the members of the committee and the department in the coming months, on legislation that will improve security and better protect our employees.” One of the Accountability Review Board’s (ARB) major findings was that building efforts to shore up the security at State facilities overseas had been consistently underfunded, and that new money is needed to improve the facilities. — Zach Fryer-Biggs

9:07 a.m. — Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is chairing the hearing today, with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., handing over the gavel since he has been nominated to become secretary of state. Menendez says U.S. cannot prevent every attack, and tells his colleagues Congress has a role in preventing attacks.  — John T. Bennett

8:59 a.m. — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., enters, and the hearing room falls silent. McCain and several fellow Senate GOP colleagues have for months hammered the Obama administration over its handling of the Benghazi attack. — John T. Bennett

8:55 a.m. — The hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building is packed. Reporters even showed up early, a rarity.  A few senators are chatting with staffers on the dais. Secretary Clinton has yet to arrive. My colleague Zach Fryer-Biggs and I will be blogging the back-and-forth, which we expect to be tense at times. — John T. Bennett

 

 

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett
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