WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton firmly defended her record before, during and after the Benghazi attacks as she came face-to-face Thursday with the Republican-led special investigation of the 2012 violence in Libya, hoping to put to rest the worst episode of her tenure as secretary of state and clear an obstacle to her presidential campaign.
The hearings went on well into the night before adjourning.
Clinton, the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination, kicked off a long day of questioning with a plea that the United States maintain its global leadership role despite the threat posed to U.S. diplomats.
She hailed the efforts of the four Americans who died in the attacks, including the first ambassador in more than three decades, but told the House Benghazi Committee that the deadly events already have been exhaustively scrutinized.
“What happened in Benghazi has been scrutinized by a non-partisan, hard-hitting accountability review board, seven prior congressional investigations, multiple news organizations and of course, our law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” she said.
Republicans pressed for answers on her record in the lead-up to the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi and a nearby CIA compound, and how engaged she was on the deteriorating security situation in eastern Libya. The atmosphere remained mostly civil until a fiery back-and-forth with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who accused Clinton of deliberately misleading the public by linking the violence to an Internet video insulting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
Clinton, stone-faced for much of the hearing, smiled in bemusement as Jordan cut her off from answering. Eventually given the chance to comment, she said only that “some” people had wanted to justify the attack based on that video and that she rejected that justification. The argument went to the origins of the disagreement over Benghazi and how President Barack Obama and his top aides represented the attack in the final weeks of his re-election campaign.
“There were probably a number of different motivations” for the attack, Clinton said, describing a time when competing strands of intelligence were being received and no clear picture had yet emerged. Speaking directly to Jordan, she said: “The insinuations that you are making do a great disservice.”
“I’m sorry that it doesn’t fit your narrative. I can only tell you what the facts were,” Clinton said.
Beyond that exchange, however, there were no gaffes for Clinton and few contentious exchanges. She never raised her voice as she did at a Senate hearing on Benghazi in January 2013, when she delivered the oft-replayed sound bite: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Instead, it was the panel’s members who engaged among themselves in the nastiest fight as the initial, almost 3 1/2 -hour session ended, with Clinton merely observing. Democrats pressed for the release of the full transcript of a trusted Clinton adviser’s private testimony, drawing the Republican chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, into an angry debate.
The bickering followed Gowdy’s questions regarding Clinton’s email correspondence with Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime Clinton family friend and informal adviser. Democrats on the committee suggested Gowdy’s line of questioning was unfair and politically motivated.
“If you think we’ve heard about Sidney Blumenthal, wait for the next round!” Gowdy declared before abruptly calling a recess in the middle of the marathon hearing. Ultimately, Clinton testified before the committee for several more hours, CBS News reported.
Gowdy questioned why Clinton exchanged so many emails with Blumenthal pertaining to Libya, even though Blumenthal “could not get hired by our government… had never been to Libya, [and] had no expertise with Libya.”
Gowdy suggested it was suspicious that Blumenthal, “all the while working with the Clinton Foundation and some pseudo-news entities, had unfettered access to you.” By contrast, Gowdy said that Clinton’s records showed “not a single email to and from Ambassador [Chris] Stevens,” the administration’s trusted man on the ground in Libya and one of the four Americans killed the Benghazi attack.
The Republican chairman defended his line of questioning, remarking, “It’s relevant because our ambassador was asked to read and respond to Sidney Blumenthal’s drivel, on some instances on the very same day he was asking for security. I think it is eminently fair to ask why Sidney Blumenthal had unfettered access” to Clinton.
Clinton maintained that the emails she received from Blumenthal were unsolicited, though some provided “interesting insights.” She added that Blumenthal “was certainly not in any way the primary source of, or the predominant [means of] understanding, what was happening in Libya.”
Exasperated with the line of questioning, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, moved to publicly release the entire transcript of Blumenthal’s June testimony before the committee.
When Gowdy resisted the idea, Cummings yelled, “You said from the beginning you want the truth, the whole truth… What do you have to hide?”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, seconded Cummings’ motion, “in fairness to Mr. Blumenthal [and] the American people.”
Gowdy retorted, “I’m not going to release one transcript of one person who knows nothing about Libya by his own admission.”
Later in the hearing, Schiff provided some trivia from Blumenthal’s June testimony. For instance, investigators asked Blumenthal more than 50 questions about the Clinton Foundation and 270 questions about his business activities in Libya, Schiff said, but only four about security in Benghazi and no questions about Stevens or other U.S. personnel in Benghazi.
The hearing came at a moment of political strength for Clinton. On Wednesday, a potential rival for the Democratic nomination, Vice President Joe Biden, announced he would not join the race. Clinton also is riding the momentum of a solid debate performance last week. The Benghazi panel’s Republican chairman says he won’t call Clinton to appear a second time.
But Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor from South Carolina, earlier began by laying out a series of questions that he said remained unanswered: Why was the U.S. in Libya, why were security requests denied, why was the military not ready to respond quickly on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and why did the Obama administration change its story about the nature of the attacks in the weeks afterward?
“These questions linger because previous investigations were not thorough,” Gowdy said.
Clinton addressed some of these matters early on. She stressed a need for diplomats to advance U.S. interests in the world, even in dangerous places, and said perfect security can never be achieved. She noted the various attacks on U.S. diplomatic and military installations overseas during the presidencies of her husband, Bill Clinton, in the 1990s and Ronald Reagan a decade earlier.
The U.S. military campaign against Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 helped prevent “genocide,” Clinton asserted, noting the Libyan dictator’s threat to hunt down opponents like “cockroaches.” The American-led intervention came after requests for assistance from allies in Europe and the Arab world, and extensive study and discussion by the U.S. government, she said.
Wearing a dark suit, Clinton appeared somber before the panel, holding her chin in her hand while Gowdy interrogated her. She nodded occasionally, such as when Cummings described the entire probe as a partisan campaign replete with implausible conspiracy theories.
The Republican criticism has included contentions by some lawmakers that Clinton personally denied security requests and ordered the U.S. military to “stand down” during the attacks, or that her agency was engaged in an elaborate gun-running scheme in eastern Libya. None of these were substantiated in the independent Accountability Review Board investigation ordered by Clinton after the deadly incident, and seven subsequent congressional investigations.
Gowdy is engaged in his own balancing act, portraying the panel as focused on the facts after comments by fellow Republicans describing the inquiry as an effort designed to hurt Clinton’s presidential bid. Democrats have pounced on the remarks, and pointed out that the probe has now cost U.S. taxpayers more than $4.5 million and, after 17 months, has lasted longer than the 1970s Watergate investigation.
But at the start of Thursday’s hearing, Gowdy told the former secretary of state and 2016 presidential candidate on Thursday that the investigation is not about her.
“Madame Secretary, I understand some people — frankly in both parties — have suggested this investigation is about you. Let me assure you it is not,” Gowdy said ahead of Clinton’s testimony.
Gowdy said the investigation is about “what happened before, during, and after the attacks that killed these four men.” He defended the length and extensive nature of the investigation and told Clinton that she is only now appearing before the committee because “you had an unusual email arrangement with yourself, which meant the State Department could not produce your emails to us.”
He added, “Your emails are no more or less important than the emails of anyone else. It just took longer to get them and garnered more attention in the process.”
Cummings charged that it is “impossible… for any reasonable person to continue denying that Republicans are squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on this abusive effort to derail Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”
The previous investigations into the attacks “respected and honored the memories of the four brave Americans who were killed in Benghazi,” Cummings said. However, he charged that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, simply “did not like the answers he got from those investigations. So he set up this new Select Committee — with no rules, no deadline, and an unlimited budget — and he set it loose on Secretary Clinton because she is running for president.”
In her opening remarks, Clinton appealed to the committee to put politics aside and “resist denigrating the patriotism or loyalty of those with whom we disagree.”
“I’m here,” she said. “Despite all the previous investigations and all the talk about partisan agendas, I’m here to honor those we lost and to do what I can to aid those who serve us still. My challenge, to you, members of this committee, is the same challenge I put to myself: let’s be worthy of the trust the American people have bestowed upon us.”
After getting several questions about her email record, Clinton insisted, “Most of my work was not done on emails.”
“I conducted it in meetings, I read massive amounts of memos… I made secure phone calls, I was in and out of the White House all the time,” Clinton told the committee.
The former secretary of state explained how every day, she received a briefing from the CIA and top State Department officials, while every week she met with a larger group of State Department officials.
“During the day, I received hundreds of pages of memos… some of them so top secret they were brought into the office in a locked briefcase,” she said. “There was a lot going on every day, and I did not email during the day… That is not how I accessed information.”
This explanation came after Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, pulled out one large stack of Clinton emails regarding American operations in Libya from 2011, as well as a smaller stack of emails from 2012. Brooks noted there were 795 emails in the 2011 pile and just 67 in the 2012 pile.
“I’m troubled by what I see here,” she said. “I can only conclude from your own records there was a lack of interest in Libya in 2012.”
Brooks pointed out that there were two explosions at the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012, ahead of the attack.
Clinton responded that there was never any recommendation — from State Department officials, intelligence officials, or any other government officials with knowledge on the issue — to shut down the mission after the first two attacks. “It was thought the mission in Benghazi… was vital to our national interests,” she said.
Another Republican committee member, Rep. Martha Roby, R-Alabama, similarly asked Clinton about an email from a low-level State Department staffer that suggested Clinton was not aware of the United States’ continuing presence in Benghazi.
“Of course I knew we had a presence in Benghazi,” Clinton said. “I knew exactly what we were doing in Libya.”
While Clinton appeared in control Thursday, FBI Director James Comey was testifying elsewhere on Capitol Hill at the same time, a reminder that she may face more examinations in the months ahead. The FBI has said little thus far about its investigation of the private email server.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Democrats on the Benghazi committee released the transcript of the closed-door testimony of former Clinton aide Cheryl Mills.
Mills testified that Clinton was devastated by the events and very engaged in her response.
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