WASHINGTON — In one of her final appearances as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton on Wednesday vigorously defended her handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans and prompted a scathing review of State Department procedures.
“As I have said many times, I take responsibility, and nobody is more committed to getting this right," she said, reading a statement during a day of testimony before Senate and House committees. “I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure."
But Clinton, whose appearance before Congress had been postponed since December because of illness, quickly departed from the script. She jousted with Republican lawmakers over who deserved blame for the security problems at the compound and choked up as she described being at Joint Base Andrews, outside Washington, when the bodies of the Americans killed in the assault arrived from Libya.
The continuing controversy over the attack, which resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, has cast a cloud over Clinton’s final months at the State Department. It was the first time she had faced extensive questioning about her role in the episode.
“I feel responsible for the nearly 70,000 people who work for the State Department," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the morning. “But the specific security requests pertaining to Benghazi, you know, were handled by the security professionals in the department. I didn’t see those requests. They didn’t come to me. I didn’t approve them. I didn’t deny them."
One of the sharpest exchanges of the day came when Clinton responded to questions from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., by saying there was too much focus on how the Benghazi attack had been characterized in its early hours and not enough on how to prevent a recurrence.
“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?" Clinton said, her voice rising. “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator."