Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's combative answers to Congress in hearings investigating the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya raised questions about whether her department did all it could to safeguard diplomats overseas.
Clinton erupted when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked whether the American public was "misled" in the days following the attack by State Department and White House officials who falsely blamed the attack on spontaneous protests.
"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," she said, raising her voice and waving her arms. "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?"
Johnson told USA TODAY: "How do you initiate a proper response if you don't know what transpired? How do you tell the truth to the American people if you don't know the facts?"
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed when terrorists invaded the consulate compound and set it ablaze. The attack occurred as several violent protests broke out at U.S. embassies in Egypt and Tunisia over a YouTube video that denigrated Islam's prophet Mohammed. No protest preceded the attack in Benghazi.
Clinton, who testified before a Senate panel in the morning and later before a House panel, promised to improve security for State Department officials in North Africa and around the world.
"I take responsibility," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure."
Democrats focused on moving forward from the attack. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, praised Clinton for moving quickly to implement security recommendations made by an independent review.
"Rather than point at others for those deficiencies, you stepped up," she said. "I am grateful."
Danielle Pletka, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has been critical of State's handling of security and the dissemination of information after the attack, said that Clinton's testimony showed that the U.S. is still not ready to deal with the threats it's facing. To find justice and improve security, "you have to understand why it happened and what went wrong," Pletka said.
Stevens had repeatedly asked for more security at Benghazi. There were signs of trouble leading up to the attack, such as when the British and International Red Cross moved out because of the threat of militants.
Clinton has said she did not see cables from Stevens and his security chief asking for more security and did not deny the requests.
Pletka agreed that it is not unusual for a secretary of State not to see routine cables. Even so, "are terrorism and al-Qaeda priorities for this administration? Up to a point. At the time, we were being told al-Qaeda are on their heels," she said.
Clinton also suggested that a lack of funds played a role in the refusal of Stevens' requests for more security. But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., pointed out that Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb had already testified that budget cuts had no role in the denial of security requests.
Clinton said an independent board's review said budget issues had an effect on the decision.
Clinton was also asked why U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice -- and not she -- went on Sunday talk shows five days after the attack to explain what happened. At the time, Rice blamed the attack on a protest and said it was not terrorism.
Clinton testified Wednesday that she was busy with more important matters. "I was focused on keeping our people safe," she said, referring to another attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen taking place at the time.
Clinton's answers show that the Obama administration's priorities are misplaced, Pletka said.
"Obama's priority on Sept. 11, 2012, was to get re-elected and sweep all problems or potential problems under the rug," she said.
(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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