Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in congressional testimony delayed for several months amid charges of a cover-up, on Wednesday again took responsibility for the deaths of four Americans during the terror attack in Benghazi and defended the Obama administration’s shifting explanation for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack.
“As I have said many times since September 11, 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.”
On the shifting accounts by the administration about the attack, the secretary of state defended the response, claiming she had called it “an attack by heavily armed militants.”
However, the cause of the attack and the identity of the attackers and their motives was unclear, she said.
“The picture remains still somewhat complicated,” Clinton said, adding that key questions about the perpetrators “remain to be determined.”
Clinton initially said in public statements after the attack that the cause was a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim online video, a theme that critics have said fits the administration’s tendency to blame the United States, and not foreign Islamists, for sparking terrorism.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, were killed when several dozen armed attackers stormed and set on fire the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
Although the attack was deliberate and coordinated, Clinton said it was not “indicative of extensive planning.”
A second attack took place at a CIA facility about a mile away. The CIA was reportedly involved in a covert arms program that may have involved shipping arms to Syrian Islamist rebels.
The Obama administration for weeks initially blamed the attack on Muslim protests in the region against an anti-Muslim video posted to YouTube.
The administration eventually acknowledged that the attack was a planned terrorist strike by a group, Ansar al Sharia, that has been linked by U.S. intelligence to al Qaeda.
“There were so many protests happening and thousands of people were putting our facilities at risk,” Clinton said during the hearing.
“We now face a spreading jihadist threat,” Clinton said. “We have to recognize this is a global movement.”
Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said on Tuesday that the administration’s handling of the attack was “a cover-up from the beginning."
U.S. intelligence officials, who are critical of the administration’s mishandling of the Benghazi attack, said that the entire affair was politicized to avoid contradicting President Obama’s statement weeks before at the Democratic National Convention that al Qaeda was on the “path to defeat.”
The Benghazi attack and other intelligence reports, however, have shown that al Qaeda is making large inroads into North Africa.
The terror attack Jan. 16 at a gas plant in Algeria that resulted in the death of 23 hostages is the most recent sign of a resurgent al Qaeda.
Clinton’s appearance came as questions remained about why State Department officials failed to provide adequate security for the Benghazi facility, despite several requests for increased security forces.
Security officials repeatedly requested more security forces for the compound but the requests were ignored.
Also, the U.S. military failed to have forces ready to defend the mission when it came under attack.
A State Department review board report made public last month found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” in the department related to the terror attack.
The State Department Accountability Review Board also stated there was never a protest at the diplomatic compound where Stevens and the three other Americans were killed. The others were Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty.
The report also contradicted the administration’s claims shortly before the attack that al Qaeda was in decline and noted that the threat is growing.
“The Benghazi attacks also took place in a context in which the global terrorism threat as most often represented by al Qaeda (AQ) is fragmenting and increasingly devolving to local affiliates and other actors who share many of AQ’s aims, including violent anti-Americanism, without necessarily being organized or operated under direct AQ command and control,” the report said.
Clinton avoided testimony before the House in November claiming a trip to Australia prevented the appearance. She then suffered a head injury as a result of falling.
Clinton said she was not involved in the talking points drafted by the CIA and approved by intelligence and policy officials that played down the al Qaeda links to the attack.
The controversy over Benghazi has included charges of CIA politicization of intelligence in a set of talking points used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice who appeared on five Sunday television news shows and asserted that the Benghazi murders were the result of a “spontaneous demonstration” by Muslims protesting an online video.
The CIA-drafted talking points had been altered to remove references to al Qaeda-linked terrorists in what critics said was an attempt by the White House to down play the terror attack prior to the Nov. 6 election.
An intelligence official said the recent al Qaeda attack on the Amenas gas field in Algeria “presents continued evidence that President Obama lied to the American people prior to the election” when he said al Qaeda was on the decline.
“Congress must demand that Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama release all documents involving the Benghazi attacks, and especially, what the mission and activities were of the CIA annex in Benghazi,” the official said. “This needs to be an on the record and public disclosure so that those involved will be able to come forward with the truth in the event that Clinton and Obama continue to lie.”
There have been unconfirmed reports that the administration was covertly supplying weapons to Islamists linked to al Qaeda.
Obama and Clinton both promised to take action against the terrorists who carried out the attack. However, so far no action has been taken.
Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist militia linked to the deadly terror attack in Benghazi, continues to operate in Libya, according to U.S. officials.
Two suspects in the Benghazi attack were arrested in October, including Ali Harzi, a Tunisian linked to the attack. Harzi was detained in Turkey and repatriated to Tunis to face terror charges.