News Column

Clinton, Johnson Butt Heads Over Benghazi Attack

Jan. 24, 2013

Craig Gilbert

In a dramatic and testy exchange Wednesday, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sparred over the administration's handling of last fall's attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya -- in particular, the way the attacks were initially portrayed to the public.

It was Johnson's first hearing as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in an interview with the Journal Sentinel following the exchange, he accused Clinton of dodging his questions and engaging in theatrics.

"I was a little surprised at her reaction," Johnson said. "She simply couldn't respond to a pretty simple question."

Clinton for her part denied that the administration tried to mislead the country on the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. She insisted the State Department is moving swiftly and aggressively to strengthen security at diplomatic posts worldwide. And she suggested that Johnson and other Republicans are excessively preoccupied with the question of how U.S. officials framed the incident.

Questioning Clinton at the hearing, Johnson accused U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice of "purposefully misleading the American public" about the episode and argued that the true nature of the attack could have been quickly determined by interviewing evacuees.

"We were misled that there were supposedly protests and that something sprang out of that, an assault sprang out of that, and that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact, and the American people could have known that within days and they didn't know that," said Johnson at the hearing.

Her voice rising, Clinton replied: "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they'd they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.

"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. The I.C. (Intelligence Community) has a process I understand going with the other committees to explain how these talking points came out. But you know, to be clear it is from my perspective less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we'll figure out what was going on the meantime."

Johnson criticized Clinton afterward for suggesting it made little difference at this point what the intentions of the attackers were.

"I think it matters an awful lot when an administration is not truthful to the American public," Johnson said, adding that the Benghazi incident was downplayed as an act of terrorism because "they had this narrative that they had gotten Bin Laden and that all was well and that al-Qaida was on the run and that President Obama's policies in the Middle East were playing out beautifully."

Defiant, fiery

In 5 { hours of testimony before the Senate committee and, later, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the secretary of state was at times defiant and fiery, at other times conciliatory.

She once again took responsibility for the department's missteps and failures leading up to the assault. But she also said that requests for more security at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi didn't reach her desk, and she reminded lawmakers that they have a responsibility to fund security-related budget requests.

Her voice cracking at one point, Clinton said the attack and the aftermath were highly personal tragedies for the families of the victims who died -- Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty -- as well as herself.

"I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters and the wives left alone to raise their children," she told the Senate committee.

Johnson was not alone in clashing with Clinton and accusing the State Department of ignoring danger signs, being unprepared for developments in the region, and mishandling the Benghazi incident. She notably ignored Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) when he said he would have fired her if he had been in charge and found that she had not read cables from her team in Libya asking for more security.

Later, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina repeatedly challenged Clinton's claim to have looked at the tragedy with "clear eyes," saying she should have personally ensured security at the mission.

He said Clinton had "let the consulate become a death trap" in denying requests for additional security and called it "malpractice."

Clinton is stepping down as secretary of state, which made her testimony affairs among her last major public appearances in that role.

By contrast, it was Johnson's first appearance on the Foreign Relations Committee, since he just joined the panel this year after leaving the appropriations panel. Johnson was elected in 2010.

"This was my first (foreign relations) hearing," Johnson said. "It was somewhat interesting."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



Source: (c)2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by MCT Information Services