She teetered on the verge of tears and laughed out loud. She pounded a table with her fists and snapped at lawmakers Wednesday.
And once again, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted blame for the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, but repeatedly deflected criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the attack and its aftermath.
With a dramatic flair, Mrs. Clinton displayed the full spectrum of emotions during two highly anticipated and highly charged congressional hearings Wednesday, revisiting one of the most bitterly contested and controversial episodes of her tenure as secretary of state.
“As I have said many times since Sept. 11, I take responsibility,” Mrs. Clinton told senators early in the day, before choking up as she recalled how she stood with President Obama as U.S. Marines “carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane” and put her “arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters” of those killed in the Benghazi attacks.
But moments later, Mrs. Clinton clashed with a string of Republican senators as she tried to explain and defend the Obama administration’s inaccurate initial characterization that the Benghazi attack began as a protest to a U.S.-made Internet video that denigrated Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Her voice rising in anger and frustration, Mrs. Clinton challenged Sen. Ron Johnson directly when the Wisconsin Republican questioned what he said were the administration’s shifting accounts of the attack and its genesis.
“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?” Mrs. Clinton said, her hands chopping the air at the witness table.
The Wisconsin Republican had asked why, five days after the Benghazi attack, the Obama administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, appeared on a string of news talk shows with assertions that the attack began as a protest against the YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims.”
Mr. Johnson — who pushed what has for months been a Republican charge that Mrs. Rice had been “purposefully misleading the American public” with her appearances on the talk shows — asked Mrs. Clinton directly why “we were misled that there were supposedly protests” outside the Benghazi mission before the attack.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” Mrs. Clinton shot back as the exchange grew heated.
State Department officials did not immediately question survivors of the attack about whether there had been a protest, Mrs. Clinton said, adding that the FBI was preparing to investigate the assault.
“Our most immediate concern, was, No. 1, taking care of their injuries,” she said. “We did not think it was appropriate for us to talk to them before the FBI conducted their interviews.”
“Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information,” she added.
Democrats on defense
Democrats defended Mrs. Clinton during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing early in the day and later during a hearing before the House Foreign Relations Committee.