Published: January 23, 2013
WASHINGTON — In long-awaited testimony, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday asserted that she had moved quickly to improve the security of American diplomats after the September attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans and prompted a scathing review of State Department procedures.
“As I have said many times since Sept. 11, I take responsibility,” Mrs. Clinton said in a prepared statement. “Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure.”
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the morning, Mrs. Clinton choked up as she recounted the grim moment in September when she and President Obama received the bodies of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attack at Joint Base Andrews, outside Washington.
“I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews,” she said. “I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters.”
The day of testimony — Mrs. Clinton was to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon — has major political implications for the departing secretary of state, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
Mrs. Clinton was to have testified in December, but her appearance was delayed by illness and then a concussion, which led to her brief hospitalization. Republicans have been insistent that Mrs. Clinton needed to testify about her own role before leaving her State Department post, and she readily agreed.
Mrs. Clinton first publicly took responsibility for the September attack in an Oct. 15 interview with television reporters. Since then, however, she has committed herself to putting in place all of the recommendations of the independent review that was led by Thomas R. Pickering, the former American ambassador, and Mike Mullen, the retired admiral who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In her prepared testimony, Mrs. Clinton sought to put the events in Benghazi in a broader regional context, noting the presence of a Qaeda-affiliated group in northern Mali.
“Benghazi didn’t happen in a vacuum,” she said. “The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region. And instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria.”
She asserted that headway was being made on putting in place the panel’s recommendations, repeating themes that had been made to Congress by senior State Department officials last month.
“And, as I pledged in my letter to you last month, implementation has now begun on all 29 recommendations,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Our task force started by translating the recommendations into 64 specific action items. All of these action items were assigned to specific bureaus and offices, with clear timelines for completion. Fully 85 percent are on track to be completed by the end of March, with a number completed already.”
Mrs. Clinton sought to avoid the controversy over whether the attack was the work of terrorists that dogged Susan E. Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, who was Mr. Obama’s initial preference to serve as Mrs. Clinton’s successor. She suggested that she was inclined to see the attack as a terrorist act from the start.
“The very next morning, I told the American people that heavily armed militants assaulted our compound and vowed to bring them to justice. And I stood with President Obama as he spoke of ‘an act of terror,’” she said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is still led by Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, whose confirmation hearing as secretary of state is Thursday. Mr. Kerry is not leading the Wednesday hearing to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest. The hearing is being led by Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, who is the incoming chairman. Mr. Kerry was not present as the hearing began.
“In all these diplomatic engagements, and in near-constant contacts at every level, we have focused on targeting Al Qaeda’s syndicate of terror – closing safe havens, cutting off finances, countering extremist ideology, and slowing the flow of new recruits,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We continue to hunt the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Benghazi and are determined to bring them to justice. And we’re also using all our diplomatic and economic tools to support the emerging democracies of the region, including Libya, to strengthen security forces and provide a path away from extremism.”