Defiant Clinton: US strengthening embassy security

WASHINGTON (AP) – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at times
emotional and fierce, insisted on Wednesday that the department is
moving swiftly and aggressively to strengthen security at U.S. missions
worldwide after the deadly Sept. 11 raid on the consulate in Libya.

In her last formal testimony on Capitol Hill as
America's top diplomat – but perhaps not her last time on the political
stage – Clinton once again took full responsibility for the department's
missteps leading up to an assault at the U.S. facility in Benghazi,
Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Her voice cracking at one point, Clinton said the experience was highly personal.

“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,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a
jam-packed hearing.

Her voice rising to Republicans' challenges at
another point, she defended the Obama administration and U.N. Ambassador
Susan Rice, who was vilified for widely debunked claims five days after
the attack that protests precipitated the raid rather than terrorism.
She challenged the GOP focus on Rice's comments, which were based on
intelligence talking points.

“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
who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this
point, does it make?” a clearly exasperated and angry Clinton told Sen.
Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “It is our job to figure out what happened and do
everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.”

She insisted that “people were trying in real time
to get to the best information,” and that her focus was on looking ahead
on how to improve security rather than revisiting the talking points
and Rice's television appearance.

Clinton said the department is implementing the 29
recommendations of an independent review board that harshly criticized
the department as well as going above and beyond the proposals, with a
special focus on high-threat posts.

The review board report faulted “systematic
failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels
within two bureaus of the State Department” and four employees were put
on administrative leave.

“Nobody is more committed to getting this right,”
she said. “I am determined to leave the State Department and our country
safer, stronger, and more secure.”

Three weeks after her release from a New York
hospital, Clinton was at times defiant, complimentary and willing to
chastise lawmakers. She tangled with some who could be rivals in 2016 if
she decides to seek the presidency again.

She will appear before the committee on Thursday to
introduce her likely successor, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a session
certain to be more reserved.

Clinton refused to back down from withering GOP criticism of the Obama administration's shifting explanations about the assault.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Clinton friend in the Senate, offered praise along with harsh complaints.

“It's wonderful to see you in good health and
combative as ever,” McCain told a visibly slimmer Clinton, whose planned
testimony last month was delayed because of her illness.

In the same breath, he dismissed her explanation of
events, the administration's response to warnings about the
deteriorating security situation in Libya and even the attention paid to
Libya after rebels toppled strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

For her part, Clinton complained about the
congressional holds placed on foreign aid and bilateral assistance. “We
have to get our act together,” she told the panel.

Her testimony focused not only on the attack but
the growing threat from extremists in northern Africa, pointing out that
Libya was not an isolated incident.

“The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics
and shattered security forces across the region,” she said. “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 said the Obama administration is pressing for a
greater understanding of the hostage-taking there and rescue effort
that left three Americans dead.

Clinton parried tough questions from Republicans,
offering a detailed timeline of events on Sept. 11 and the Obama
administration efforts to aid the Americans in Libya while
simultaneously dealing with protests in Cairo and other countries.

GOP lawmakers repeatedly questioned Clinton about whether she had seen earlier requests for beefed-up security.

“I did not see these requests. They did not come to me. I did not approve them. I did not deny them,” she said.

That provoked a testy response from Sen. Rand Paul,
R-Ky., a potential presidential candidate in 2016. He excoriated
Clinton and expressed disbelief that she hadn't read the cables about
security concerns.

“Had I been president at the time and I 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,” Paul
told Clinton. “I think it's inexcusable.

Clinton took Republicans to task, chiding House GOP
members for recently stripping $1 billion in security aid from the
hurricane relief bill and the Senate panel for failing for years to
produce an authorization bill.

In northern California, Stevens' stepfather, Bob
Commanday, said the family has avoided discussions of whether security
was adequate. He said Clinton had been in contact with the family on
several occasions since the attack.

“We're very aware of her sympathy because of our
contact with her and the way she has connected with us and written to
us,” he said. “It's a tragedy and nothing that is said or done can bring
him back, so we are just going on with life.”

In something of a valedictory, Clinton noted her
robust itinerary in four years and her work, nearly 1 million miles and
112 countries.

“My faith in our country and our future is stronger
than ever. Every time that blue and white airplane carrying the words
“United States of America” touches down in some far-off capital, I feel
again the honor it is to represent the world's indispensable nation. And
I am confident that, with your help, we will continue to keep the
United States safe, strong, and exceptional.”

Clinton was the sole witness at back-to-back
hearings before the Senate and House foreign policy panels on the
September raid. She had been scheduled to testify before Congress last
month, but an illness, a concussion and a blood clot near her brain
forced her to postpone her appearance.

Absent from the hearing was Kerry. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the incoming chairman, presided over the hearing.

Clinton's testimony was focusing on the Libya
attack after more than three months of Republican charges that the Obama
administration ignored signs of a deteriorating security situation
there and cast an act of terrorism as mere protests over an anti-Muslim
video in the heat of a presidential election. Washington officials
suspect that militants linked to al-Qaida carried out the attack.

Politics play an outsized role in any appearance by
Clinton, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and
is the subject of constant speculation about a possible bid in 2016. The
former first lady and New York senator – a polarizing figure dogged by
controversy – is about to end her four-year tenure at the State
Department with high favorable ratings.

A poll early last month by the Pew Research Center
for the People & the Press found 65 percent of Americans held a
favorable impression of Clinton, compared with 29 percent unfavorable.

On the panel at the hearing were two possible 2016
Republican presidential candidates – Florida's Marco Rubio and Paul, a
new member of the committee.

Clinton did little to quiet the presidential
chatter earlier this month when she returned to work at the State
Department after her illness. On the subject of retirement, she said, “I
don't know if that is a word I would use, but certainly stepping off
the very fast track for a little while.”


Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Andrew
Miga in Washington, and Garance Burke in San Francisco contributed to
this report.

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Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be
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