Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton brushed aside emails Thursday that showed she privately told family and world leaders that the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi was a terrorist assault, and said Ambassador Christopher Stevens was responsible for his own decisions regarding skimpy security ahead of his death.
Testifying to the House Select Committee on Benghazi, a composed and controlled Mrs. Clinton said she was involved in the big decisions of deploying Stevens to Libya and pressing President Obama to lead the war effort that ousted Moammar Gadhafi. But she deflected responsibility for much of what went wrong, saying the ambassador’s requests for more protection, which were denied, were handled at levels beneath her.
Mrs. Clinton also revealed that she gave orders for her lawyer and aides to go through her emails, but she did not “look over their shoulder” and didn’t know exactly how they decided which emails were work-related business. And she declined to agree to release any emails recovered from her server.
In a hearing that lasted more than eight hours, Mrs. Clinton escaped without the kind of major gaffe that plagued her 2013 appearance before the Senate.
But she seemed unsure of whether she spoke with Stevens in the months between swearing him in as ambassador and the attack, in which he died of smoke inhalation.
And she stumbled over her relationship with family confidant Sidney Blumenthal, who repeatedly sent her messages about Benghazi at her special email account, and she struggled to explain her department’s public stance blaming the anti-Islam video with what her own staffers — and she herself — were saying in the immediate aftermath of the attack, which left Stevens and three other Americans dead.
Mrs. Clinton said her statement, issued the night of Sept. 11, that appeared to attribute the violence to “inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” was actually meant to be a warning to others not to blame the video — something that came to pass anyway.
Republicans were incredulous at that explanation, saying her official statement was belied by an email she sent to her daughter and a phone call she made to the Egyptian prime minister, where she said the attack was perpetrated by al Qaeda.
“State Department experts knew the truth. You knew the truth. But that’s not what the American people got. And again, the American people want to know why,” Rep. Jim Jordan told Mrs. Clinton in a heated exchange.
Mrs. Clinton rejected the line of questioning, saying the intelligence community itself was conflicted.
“I believe to this day the video played a role,” the former secretary said.
A short distance away from Mrs. Clinton’s marathon appearance, FBI Director James B. Comey fielded a question from the House Judiciary Committee about his agency’s criminal investigation into her use of a server she kept at her home in New York, including classified government business. He made clear the case is a top priority.
“As you also know about the FBI, we don’t talk about our investigations while we do them. This is one I’m following very closely and get briefed on regularly,” he said.
Mrs. Clinton defended her handling of the emails, repeating again that none of the emails was marked classified at the time she sent or received them. And she defended the way she decided which emails to return to the government, saying she tasked her lawyers and aides, rather than doing it herself.
“I thought that was the appropriate way to proceed,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton, the front-runner for Democrats’ presidential nomination, kicked off her testimony with remarks that tended toward campaign policy speech, saying she led a State Department committed to a forward-leaning posture.
“Retreat from the world is not an option,” she said.
As she gave her testimony, Mrs. Clinton was surrounded by some of her closest longtime aides who served under her at the State Department and now hold key posts in the Clinton campaign.
Reserved seats in the row immediately behind the witness desk were filled by Huma Abedin, who was Mrs. Clinton’s personal assistant at the department and now serves as national vice chair of the campaign; Jake Sullivan, who went from being a director of policy planning at the State Department to being the campaign’s top foreign policy advisor; and Nick Merrill, who went from a communications official at the State Department to a campaign spokesman.
Democrats on the Benghazi committee repeatedly sprang to Mrs. Clinton’s defense, questioning the very existence of the probe — an inquiry they have threatened to quit.
“We have learned nothing substantively new about what happened in Benghazi,” said Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat. “This committee in all that time and effort has unearthed nothing. Instead, they want to prosecute you and rip apart your every word, your every e-mail.”
Later in the hearing he said the GOP was asking “vicious” questions in an attempt to wear Mrs. Clinton down — drawing a chuckle from the former secretary.
Republicans said Democrats never intended to pursue the inquiry, and have tried to thwart the investigation at every turn. The GOP lawmakers said previous investigations by the State Department and other congressional committees didn’t go far enough, for example failing to discover Mrs. Clinton’s tens of thousands of emails, which she shielded from public disclosure by taking them with her when she left office.
Under questioning by Rep. Susan Brooks, Indiana Republican, Mrs. Clinton said believed she spoke with Stevens at some point after she swore him in as ambassador, though she couldn’t remember when or what they talked about. Republicans said there was no record of any communication.
But Mrs. Clinton said the lack of better security in Benghazi at the time of the attack was the responsibility of Stevens himself and the security professionals she trusted to advise her, and who rejected some of the ambassador’s requests.
“Chris Stevens had an opportunity to reach me directly any time he thought there was something of importance,” the former secretary said.
Republicans said it appeared Mrs. Clinton lost interest in Libya after the 2011 U.S.-led effort to oust Benghazi. Rep. Susan Brooks, Indiana Republican, laid a massive stack of Libya-related emails on the dais that she said were from 2011, then placed beside them a skimpy stack from 2012, saying the lack of attention showed.
Mrs. Clinton countered that she didn’t do much of her business by email.
As the hearing extended beyond eight hours, Mrs. Clinton stood her ground and kept her cool against increasingly aggressive questioning.
Rep. Peter Roskam, Illinois Republican, said she was shifting blame for what happened, and asked her if she was responsible for the deaths of Stevens and the other Americans.
“Of course I would not say that,” Mrs. Clinton said firmly, “and I think it is a disservice for you to make that comment. … It is a disservice to people who are charged with making difficult security decisions.”
Facing questions about her own actions the night of the attack, Mrs. Clinton said she did not call Defense Secretary Leon Panetta or Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, saying there was no reason because they were already doing what they needed to do to try to support the Americans on the ground.
Mrs. Clinton’s relationship with Sidney Blumenthal, a controversial figure she characterized as an old friend, also took center stage. She revised her earlier statement that she never solicited information from him, correcting herself to say that she didn’t initiate the first inquiries but listening as investigation Chairman Trey Gowdy read emails she wrote asking for Mr. Blumenthal’s advice and opinions.
Mrs. Clinton said she didn’t vet Mr. Blumenthal’s sources, but struggled to explain why she then deleted him as the origin of emails she forwarded on to others.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the probe, said that line of questioning was a disservice to the families of the Americans who died.
“I mean, if you’re a family member, and you’re sitting out there waiting for answers to your questions, you’re going to have to wonder why it is that the first questions that come forth are about somebody who knows nothing about Benghazi, has never been to Libya,” Mr. Cummings said.