By Julian Pecquet - 01/23/13 11:16 PM EST
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed emotion and flashes of anger on Wednesday as she delivered long-awaited testimony on the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Making her final congressional appearance as the nation’s top diplomat, Clinton sparred with Republicans who accused the administration of misleading the public about the chain of events that preceded the Sept. 11 killings.
Clinton reiterated throughout testimony in the House and Senate that she takes responsibility for the State Department’s security failures.
“As I have said many times since Sept. 11, I take responsibility. Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure,” she said at Senate hearing Wednesday morning.
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But even as she accepted blame for the security lapses in Benghazi, Clinton made an effort to protect her legacy at State — and potentially her chances at a presidential run in 2016 — by denying any wrongdoing herself.
A bipartisan board that investigated the Libya attack “made very clear that the level of responsibility for the failures that they outlined was set at the Assistant Secretary of State level and below,” Clinton said. “These requests don't ordinarily come in to the secretary of State.”
That drew a blistering response from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky).
“I think ultimately with your leaving you accept culpability for the worst tragedy since Sept. 11,” Paul said. “If I'd been president at the time and I'd found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post.”
“Not to know of the requests for security, really I think cost these people their lives.”
Clinton tried throughout the hearings to reassure lawmakers that her agency has learned from the mistakes that led to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others at the diplomatic facility.
She choked up as she recalled consoling the families of those who died.
"For me, this is not just a matter of policy ... it’s personal,” Clinton said while holding back tears. “I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters."
Republicans did not shy away from tough questions, and renewed their accusations that President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was dispatched for interviews after the assault in a deliberate attempt to mislead the public about what had happened as the presidential election loomed. Rice dropped out of contention to replace Clinton at State in the face of Republican outrage about her initial statements on Libya, which attributed the attack to a peaceful protest gone awry.
Clinton said she wasn't the one who sent Rice to talk to the media.
“I personally was not focused on talking points,” she said. “I was focused on keeping our people safe.”
She described Rice's controversial statements as emerging from a "typical" inter-agency process, and stressed that many questions about the events in Libya remain unanswered.
“We didn't know who the attackers were or what their motives were," she said. "The picture remains somewhat complicated.”
In the sharpest exchange of the day, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) pressed Clinton about why survivors of the Libya attack weren't interviewed before Rice's public statements.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” Clinton told him angrily. “Whether it's because of a protest or whether a guy out for a walk decided to go kill some Americans, what difference at this point does it make?”
In retrospect, Clinton said, the administration could have done a better job making clear it did not know all the facts when Rice testified.
“We did not conclude until days after the attacks that there was no protest at all,” she said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defended Johnson’s questioning and said he was disappointed with Clinton's responses, though he said he was happy to see Clinton “in good health and as combative as ever.”
Clinton’s testimony on Benghazi was delayed last month after she was hospitalized for treatment of a blood clot.
“The American people deserve answers,” he said. “And they certainly don't deserve false answers.”
Clinton took a much more measured tone with McCain, telling him “we just have a disagreement” about what happened.
Surprisingly, Clinton faced an easier time in the Republican-controlled House, where many Democratic freshman were more interested in heaping praise on one of their idols than probing her agency's deficiencies.
“As a new member of Congress, I think I speak for all the freshmen that we're not gonna get much time to serve with you, but we hope in a few years we'll get that chance to serve again,” freshman Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) said.
Bera rhetorically asked Clinton how long it would take her to read the 1.4 million cables the State Department receives every year, giving her an opening to once again argue that she wasn't made aware of Ambassador Stevens' requests for more security prior to the Sept. 11 attack.
That answer did not satisfy Republicans.
“This committee is concerned that the department’s most senior officials either should have known about the worsening security in Benghazi — or did know,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.). “Either way, security requests were denied.”
—This story was first posted at 9:58 a.m. and has been updated.