Republican lawmakers failed to open new lines of inquiry on the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Libya despite back-to-back grillings Wednesday of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for a fuller explanation of the administration’s response to the much-debated terrorist assault.
Testifying weeks before she is expected to leave office, Clinton emphasized in consecutive sessions before the House and Senate foreign policy committees that there was a “rapidly changing threat environment” in North Africa, citing the recent terrorist attack in Algeria and growing instability in Mali, Nigeria and elsewhere.
“We now face a spreading jihadist threat,” she told the Senate panel. She said the flow of weapons and fighters from Libya since the overthrow of Moammar Kadafi “is the source of one of our biggest threats.”
“We have to recognize this is a global movement,” she said of groups aligned with Al Qaeda. “We can kill leaders, but until we help establish strong democratic institutions ... we’re going to be faced with this level of instability.”
In sometimes testy exchanges, Republicans pushed Clinton on whether top administration officials missed warning signs of the terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the Libyan city of Benghazi.
Clinton said she never saw any specific requests for additional security in Benghazi, saying such requests went to lower-level security professionals at the State Department.
“They didn’t come to me,” she said. “I didn’t approve them. I didn’t deny them.”
Though most GOP members treated the outgoing secretary with deference, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said bluntly that had he been president, he would have fired her for failing to read diplomatic cables from Benghazi.
“With your leaving, you accept culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11,” Paul said. “I would have relieved you of your post. I think it’s inexcusable.”
Clinton said she accepted all 29 recommendations of an independent investigative board, adding that 85% were “on track” for completion in March.
“As I have said many times, I take responsibility,” she said. “Nobody is more committed to getting this right.”
Although the controversy could tarnish Clinton, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, it has produced no apparent effect on her lofty public approval ratings. Republican congressional aides acknowledged that it would be difficult to keep the issue in the spotlight.
Clinton’s voice broke as she told of watching Marines carry the four flag-draped caskets off a military plane at Andrews Air Force Base.
“I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children,” she said.
Clinton seemed to lose patience with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who said that had she had picked up the phone and called one of the survivors, she could have cleared up uncertainty about whether the attack followed a “spontaneous demonstration” or not.
“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?” Clinton asked in a rising voice. “What difference, at this point, does it make?
“It is, from my perspective, less important today looking backward as to why these militants decided” to launch an attack “than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime,” she said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Clinton that her answers “are not satisfactory to me.... Here we are, four months later, and we still don’t have the basic information.”
Law enforcement and congressional sources say three suspects have surfaced in the Benghazi case.
One is in custody in Egypt, but the FBI has had little or no access to him so far, sources said.
Another suspect was identified as Ali Ani Harzi, who was detained until 10 days ago by Tunisian authorities. FBI agents had brief access to him in December, and came away unsure of his role or whether his statements on the case were accurate.
Clinton told the Senate committee that Tunisian authorities were monitoring Harzi and believed they could find him if necessary.
Times staff writer Richard Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.