Last Wednesday, Jan. 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced more than five and half hours of questioning over the attacks on the Benghazi consulate on September 11, 2012. She was required to testify in front of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the matter, and to respond to largely Republican attacks on her department’s handling of the situation and relay of information.
The Secretary’s remarks were at times rather heated, and at other time very emotional. While some criticize that there is still no clear picture of the attack, it is clear that Hillary Clinton is passionate about her job and responsibilities. In her opening remarks in front of the Senate, her voice faltered when she expressed how this was more than just a matter of policy for her.
“I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews,” Clinton said. “I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children.”
After these emotional remarks, several Senators were given the chance to question Secretary Clinton about how she handled the Benghazi attack. Many of these questions, such as those posed by Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ron Johnson, were mainly concerned with the original statement given by US Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice who blamed the attack on protests sparked by the viral anti-Muhammad film.
However, Clinton maintained that she was “not focused on talking points” because during that time there were threats to other embassies in the areas, such as those in Cairo and Tunisia. Rather than attending to the creation of these now debated talking points, the Secretary emphatically stated that she was much more focused on keeping people safe in these other critical areas.
“Benghazi did not happen in a vacuum,” she also said in response to criticisms of how she and her department may have mobilized slowly gathering intelligence on the attack. “The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region.”
Secretary Clinton consistently expressed her department’s greater concern for American safety in Northern Africa and pointed to the future in light of this attack. She repeatedly referenced the twenty-nine recommendations made by the Accountability Review Board led by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, which she created to diagnose what went wrong and how to fix it. Many of these recommendations have already been implemented while the Secretary is working to complete the rest before she retires from her position.
Again, Clinton’s remarks were more focused on the future of American security abroad and perhaps the bigger issue of this attack: to bring those responsible to justice, rather than make clear original talking points created amidst a hectic and unclear situation.
One of the more heated moments from the testimonies occurred during the Senate hearing when R-Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin implied that the State Department intentionally misled the public over the cause of the events.
“We were misled that there were supposedly protests and something sprang out of that, an assault sprang out of that and that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact,” Johnson said.
Visibly flustered, Clinton responded, “”With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided they’d go kill some Americans?”
She continued to deliver the most repeated comment of the hearings which even went viral: “”What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”
However, some would argue that it does make quite a difference. Many went to twitter with the hashtag: #whatdifferencedoesitmake with scathing criticisms. Later that night, Sen. Johnson appeared on CNN to talk with Erin Burnett.
“The American people have a right to be told the truth,” Johnson said in response to the question of what difference it makes.
He also spoke of the need for a standard debriefing process to get the crucial correct and clear information after events such as those at Benghazi. However, these remarks seemed to depart from the initial Republican criticism that Rice’s comments were an intentional attempt to mislead. They instead criticized the ignorance of the Department, which is a very different sentiment.
When alerted to this departure, Johnson said that it ultimately didn’t matter whether it was “willful ignorance, or gross incompetence,” or perhaps as Clinton noted, “it’s that we (the State Department) didn’t have a clear picture, and we probably didn’t do as clear a job explaining that we did not have a clear picture, until days later, creating what I think are legitimate questions.”
Some also believe the criticisms of the original talking points arose mainly to hurt President Obama’s 2012 campaign. This tactic clearly did not work, but now these criticisms may continue with the hopes of derailing a possible Hillary Clinton 2016 run. Hillary Clinton has 67% public approval rating as her time as Secretary of State draws to a close. This hearing is really the only dark mark on her otherwise publicly acclaimed work for the State Department. In these hearings she sparred with other possible 2016 contenders, Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. However, even coming off of treatment for a concussion and blood clot near her brain, Hillary looked fantastic, confident, and maintained her decorum. Her few heated moments served only to show her passion for her work and her focus on the future of American security. She seemed not only in control of her facts, but of the situation as a whole. She exhibited ultimate professionalism, as usual, in these marathon hearings. While they were perhaps meant to beat her down, they instead showed her stamina and dedication, and she came out on top.
By ELENA GIANNELLA ’15