Posted by on January 23, 2013 in Blog

On Capitol Hill today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared in front of Senate and House committees to defend her handling of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya last September. Secretary Clinton has been intensely criticized by Republicans, who accuse her and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice of intentionally deceiving the public about what happened in Benghazi. Her appearances before Congress today allowed Secretary Clinton to effectively rebut these charges and to embark on the first leg of her goodbye tour.

A quick refresher for those who may have forgotten: Last September 11th, the American consulate in Benghazi, a restive city in eastern Libya, was attacked. Four Americans were killed, including the Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and two diplomatic security officers. The attack came in the midst of protests in other Arab cities against an amateurish anti-Islam film produced in the US. Given the events in Cairo and Tripoli, American intelligence initially indicated that the Benghazi attack was also precipitated by the film, and Ambassador Rice said as much on television that weekend. Soon, though, it became apparent that the attack had been well-planned and carried out by heavily armed jihadists. Cables from Ambassador Stevens and others revealed that the consulate had requested additional security but were ignored. Administration officials recanted previous claims blaming protests over the movie, but Republicans remain convinced that the incident was covered up to help President Obama’s chances at reelection.

In the morning, Secretary Clinton appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In what was likely her last appearance in front of the group, every Senator took time to praise Clinton’s work at the State Department and her assistance to them in various matters. The testiest exchange of the morning came with Wisconsin’s Tea Party Senator, Ron Johnson, who pushed Clinton on the decision to send Ambassador Rice to the Sunday talk shows. Becoming exasperated, Clinton wondered why there was so much focus on that decision and so little on how to prevent future tragedies. Sen. John McCain also forcefully questioned Clinton about why repeated requests for enhanced security had not been fulfilled.  Her afternoon appearance before the House Foreign Relations Committee included much of the same pointed questioning by Republicans and praise from Democrats. 

Despite the Republican appetite for scandal, Secretary Clinton was eager to bring the discussion back to preventing incidents like Benghazi in the future. She repeatedly pointed out that the Congress had failed to appropriate sufficient money for diplomatic security, partially explaining the reluctance of State Department officials to send additional personnel to Benghazi. She also explained that the Department was fully implementing the recommendations made by an independent review led by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. According to Clinton, most of the recommendations will be completed by March, addressing security deficiencies that helped lead to the Benghazi disaster.

The Benghazi attack was politicized by Republicans almost immediately, eager to use it to discredit Obama during the campaign. Clinton did an admirable job of simultaneously exposing Republican charges of a cover-up as fantastic and demonstrating the State Department’s important attention to addressing deficiencies in security. It will likely be the first stop on the Secretary’s long, and well-deserved, farewell tour.  

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