Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likely will face tough questions about the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya — including how the U.S. ambassador went missing for several hours during the assault — when she meets Wednesday with the House and Senate foreign affairs committees.
The appearance, likely to be her last before Congress, will cap her time as secretary of state by revisiting one of the most bitterly contested and controversial episodes of her tenure.
Some Republicans have charged that the Obama administration deliberately blurred or tried to hide the fact that the attack was the work of terrorists linked to al Qaeda, who killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Officials initially said that the assault appeared to have grown out of a protest against a U.S.-made Web video insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Officials say they acted in good faith, passing along the best information they had at the time, which was contradictory and incomplete.
Other Republicans have refrained from accusing the administration of a political cover-up, preferring to focus on questions about why the State Department rejected requests from Stevens for more security and why the U.S. military failed to respond more quickly to the attack, which unfolded in two phases over more than seven hours at the diplomatic compound and a CIA annex a few miles away.
A State Department official Monday said Mrs. Clinton has gone to great lengths to be responsive to Congress. As a former senator from New York, Mrs. Clinton has a more appreciative attitude toward congressional oversight than many fellow officials, the official added.
The secretary’s testimony will cap more than 30 briefings and hearings by multiple agencies before half a dozen congressional committees, the official added.
Multiple congressional investigations into the attack are under way, and the State Department’s own mandatory investigation — called an Accountability Review Board — last month published a short, unclassified report and 24 recommendations.
But some Republicans say they have not had all their questions answered.
“I want to know what lessons have been learned,” Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming said Sunday.
“I want to know what she was doing. Did she give any orders during this whole process? Take a look at it from before, during and after the attacks,” he told CNN.
Stevens disappeared on the night of the attack after he became separated from his security detail inside the main building of the compound, which had been set on fire. Several hours later, his body was brought to the Benghazi Medical Center by a half-dozen Libyan “good Samaritans,” who entered the compound “among the hordes of looters and bystanders” after the U.S. personnel had been evacuated and the attackers had dispersed, according to the State Department report.
The group told Libyan doctors at the hospital that they found Stevens’ body in the main building at the compound, dragged him out through a window and tried to revive him, but their identities remain unknown and their account is unconfirmed.
The report also failed to provide a cause of death for the ambassador, stating only that the Libyan doctors at the hospital concluded he had died of “apparent smoke inhalation.”
It also remains unclear exactly who was monitoring streaming video footage being transmitted by two U.S. military drones that were flying over Benghazi on the night of the attack. The pictures were monitored at a Defense Department facility but were not fed to the White House, a senior official said.
The Obama administration has declined to respond to media requests for details about who was watching the live video feed. A senior defense official told The Washington Times last year that “the surveillance aircraft captured footage of events on the ground” and “it wasn’t available that night at the White House.”
The question is significant because defense officials have said that a lack of accurate intelligence about conditions on the ground was one reason they were not able to deploy military forces to attempt a rescue.
Earlier this month, another Republican senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is the new ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Democrat-controlled Senate, suggested that Mrs. Clinton is eager to try to address unanswered questions.
“I actually sense — especially in talking to her chief [of staff] just in the last few days — that she’s anxious to want to come up and testify on Benghazi,” he told MSNBC.
“And I think that’s an important thing both for her but, obviously, for our country.”
The State Department official added that Mrs. Clinton was working hard to prepare for her appearance Wednesday and would be prepared to answer any questions.
Mrs. Clinton was originally scheduled to testify in December. But after dehydration from a stomach virus caused her to faint and hit her head, which subsequently led to a blood clot inside her skull, she canceled.
She was discharged two weeks ago from a New York hospital. Doctors have said that the clot did not result in a stroke or neurological damage and that they expect her to recover fully.