Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sparred with lawmakers Wednesday over what they claimed was the Obama administration’s bungled response to the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Clinton became visibly irritated several times as she rebutted claims by Republican senators that the Obama administration intentionally misled the American public about the specific events that led to the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) told Clinton that her response to lawmakers was not up to par.
"The answers you've given this morning frankly are not satisfactory to me," McCain said, chiding Clinton for failing to account for the administration’s lapses in knowledge.
"Were you and the president made aware of the classified cable from Chris Stevens that said that the United States consulate in Benghazi could not survive a sustained assault," McCain asked. "Numerous warnings, including personally to me about the security were unanswered, or unaddressed."
"What was the president's activities during that seven-hour period?" McCain added, pressing for details. "On the anniversary of the worst attack in American history, September 11th, we didn't have Department of Defense forces available for seven hours."
McCain went on to reprimand Clinton for arguing that it makes no difference whether the Benghazi compound was stormed by armed militants or attacked by protestors.
"I categorically reject your answer to Senator [Ron] Johnson about, well we didn't ask these survivors who were flown to Ramstein [air base] the next day, that they—that this was not a spontaneous demonstration," McCain said. "To say it's because an investigation was going on? The American people deserve to know answers, and they certainly don't deserve false answers."
The American people were deceived, McCain maintained.
"Answers that were given to the American people on September 15th by the ambassador to the United Nations [Susan Rice] were false—in fact contradicted by the classified information which was kept out of the Secretary to the United Nations report who by the way in the president's words had nothing to do with Benghazi, which questions why she was sent out to start with," McCain said.
"Why do we care? Because if the classified information had been included it gives an entirely different version of events to the American people," McCain continued. "If you want to go out and tell the American people what happened you should at least have interviewed the people who were there, instead of saying, ‘No we couldn't talk to them because a FBI investigation was going on.’ "
"The American people and the families of these four brave Americans still have not got gotten the answers that they deserve," McCain said. "I hope that they will get them."
Clinton warned that America faces a "spreading jihadist threat" that is endangering U.S. assets across the globe.
Clinton became the latest in a series of high-ranking U.S. government officials to publicly recognize the immediate threat that terrorist forces pose to U.S. embassies and other American outposts in the Middle East and North Africa.
"We now face a spreading jihadist threat," Clinton said. "We have driven a lot of the operatives out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, killed a lot of them, including [Osama] Bin Laden."
"But this is a global movement," Clinton said. "We can kill leaders, but until we help establish strong democratic institutions, until we do a better job with values and relationships, we will be faced with this level of instability."
Clinton is one of the highest-ranking U.S. officials to chastise publicly the newly installed Islamist governments that have risen from the ashes of the Arab Spring, reminding lawmakers that these Arab leaders "have no experience with democracy."
"This is a great opportunity as well as a serious threat to our country," Clinton said, referring to the Arab Spring. "It's not going to be easy. They [these new governments] have no experience with democracy, they don't have any real experience among the leaders in running countries and doing security."
Clinton noted that much has changed during her tenure as secretary of state.
"When I was here four years ago testifying for my confirmation, I don't think anybody thought that [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak would be gone, [former Libyan leader Muamar] Gadhafi would be gone, that we would have such revolutionary change in this region," Clinton said.
"There were hints of it. Several of us said the institutions were sinking in the sand," she added. "So there was feeling out there, but I don't think any of us predicted this."
When pressed by Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wisc.) over the administrations’ failure to provide a clear accounting of the attacks in the days that followed, Clinton grew testy.
She maintained that the administration’s failure to detail whether the attacks were spontaneous and planned or the result of an out-of-control protest is irrelevant.
"What difference at this point does it make" whether the attacks were planned or not, Clinton asked Johnson.
Clinton went on to defend U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who came under fire from lawmakers and others for initially misleading the American public about the attacks.
"People have accused Ambassador Rice and the administration of misleading America, [but]… nothing could be further from the truth," Clinton said, explaining that "the situation [was] fluid" and that officials "reached conclusions later that weren’t reached initially."
Johnson remained unconvinced, pressing Clinton to explain herself.
"We were misled that there were supposedly protests and assaults spraying 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," Johnson said.
"With all due respect, the fact is, we had four dead Americans," Clinton shouted.
"Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans. What difference at this point does it make?" she asked. "It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again."