Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - A combative Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday fiercely defended her actions during and after terrorists waged their brutal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya and said she is determined "to find them and bring them to justice."
Clinton, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also promised to improve security for State Department officials in North Africa and around the world following the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
"I take responsibility," Clinton told the 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."
Clinton, who will soon be leaving her post, said she directed the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attack from the State Department and stayed in close contact with U.S. officials on the ground as well as the Libyan government.
She said the deaths were "personal" for her, and was near tears when she talked of standing next to President Obama "as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews (Air Force Base). I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters."
Clinton brushed aside claims that administration misled the public by initially linking the attack to a protest that spiraled out of control.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis, said "a simple phone call" to people in Benghazi "would have established immediately" that there was no protest. "Why wasn't that known?"
Clinton said State Department officials decided it was not appropriate to talk to U.S. officials in Benghazi before the FBI conducted their interviews. Pressed further on why that call wasn't made, Clinton erupted in anger.
"With all due respect, what difference at this point does it make?" she said, waiving her hands in the air. "We have four dead Americans. It's our job to figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again. People were trying in real time to get to the information.
Job one, she said, is to find the killers and "bring them to justice."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gave Clinton a warm but brief welcome before quickly pressing her on security issues at the consulate. He said when he met with Stevens on July 7 - more than two months before the attack - Stevens expressed "his deep and grave concerns about security in Benghazi... and the need for additional assistance."
The administration's "preference for a 'soft footprint' was part of the reason for what took place" in Benghazi, McCain said.
An Independent Accountability Review Board appointed by the State Department concluded that "systemic failures" left the consulate in Benghazi inadequately protected and confirmed that no protest preceded the deadly attack. In a report released in December, the board recommended that the State Department strengthen security in high-risk posts.
Clinton told the committee she has asked a deputy secretary to lead a task force to ensure that all 29 of the panels recommendations are implemented quickly and completely - and to pursue "additional steps above and beyond" those in the board's report.
"Benghazi did not happen in a vacuum," Clinton said. The instability brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 has expanded the reach of extremists across North Africa, she said.
The State Department for days after the Sept. 11 attack blamed it on a spontaneous protest of what it called a "reprehensible" video that denigrated Islam's prophet Mohammed, while CIA and diplomats from the scene were reporting that no protest preceded the attack.
Clinton testified that on the day of the attack, before it happened, she had been at the State Department dealing with a different crisis that evolved from protests to a YouTube video that disparaged Mohammed.
"During most of the day, prior to getting notice of the attack on our compound in Benghazi, we were very focused on the situation around our embassy in Cairo," Clinton said. "There were attempts to scale the wall, and we were in close contact with our counterparts in Cairo."
When the attack in Benghazi happened, about 4 p.m. Washington time, she called Libyan security officials "to get assistance as quickly as possible."
Clinton testified she spoke to National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, then-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus, who had a compound in Benghazi, and the White House.
She said U.S. officials participated in talks about what to do in a secure video conference with senior officials from the White House, the intelligence community and the Defense Department.
"I spoke to President Obama later in the day," she said.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, asked Clinton if she selected Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to go on the Sunday talk shows where she blamed the attack on a video days after it was clear the attack was terrorism.
"I did not," Clinton said.
Rice's television performances five days after the attack derailed her possible nomination to replace Clinton as secretary of State.
At the time, "I was not focused on talking points," Clinton said. "I was focused on keeping our people safe. We still had people attacking our embassy in Yemen, trying to scale the walls. I had to call the president in Tunis and beg him to send reinforcements, which he did and eventually saved our embassy there."
Also, the classified intelligence assessment of the Benghazi attack was still cloudy about what it was, she said.
"There were a variety of potential causes and triggers," Clinton said.
There were some communications and coordination before the attack, but it still wasn't clear if it rose to the level of a pre-planned terrorist attack, she said.
Clinton testified that her department reacted to the attack by taking immediate steps to protect personnel and postings in embassies and consulates facing large protests around the world.
Clinton is also scheduled to make an appearance before a House panel. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, noted that when Clinton ran against President Obama four years ago, she ran a TV ad asking whether he was ready for a 3 a.m. call that requires judgment and decisive action.
"Well, that call came for both of them," Chaffetz said. "The ambassador was missing for seven hours. What was her interaction with the president? Did she go to bed?"
Contributing: John Bacon