Wednesday 26 October 2016

Hillary Clinton defiant in 11-hour grilling on Benghazi attacks

Published 23/10/2015 | 07:22

Hillary Clinton feels the pressure in the final hour of her marathon session on Capitol Hill (AP)
Hillary Clinton feels the pressure in the final hour of her marathon session on Capitol Hill (AP)

Hillary Clinton has tried to close the book on the worst episode of her tenure as US secretary of state, battling hours of Republican questions in a congressional hearing that grew contentious, but revealed little new about the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

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She firmly defended her record while seeking to avoid any mishap that might damage her presidential campaign.

Democrats have accused the Republicans of using the investigation as a ploy to derail Mrs Clinton's White House bid, noting that it was the eighth congressional investigation into the attacks.

But the hearing came at a moment of political strength for Mrs Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. On Wednesday, a potential rival for the nomination, US vice president Joe Biden, announced he would not join the race and Mrs Clinton is also riding the momentum of a solid debate performance last week.

Pressed about events before and after the deaths of four Americans, Mrs Clinton had confrontational exchanges with several Republicans but also fielded supportive queries from Democrats.

The hearing ended at 9pm US time, some 11 hours after it began. But five hours into the hearing, Republicans had yet to ask Mrs Clinton a single question about the night of September 11 2012, itself.

The House of Representatives committee chairman Trey Gowdy portrayed the panel as focused on the facts after comments by fellow Republicans describing it as an effort designed to hurt Mrs Clinton's presidential bid

Democrats have pounced on those earlier remarks and have pointed out that the probe has now cost US taxpayers more than 4.5 million dollars (£3m) and, after 17 months, has lasted longer than the 1970s Watergate investigation.

Mr Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, said the Republicans' efforts were not a prosecution.

Contradicting him, Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, told Mrs Clinton: "The purpose of this committee is to prosecute you."

In one tense moment, Republican Jim Jordan accused Mrs Clinton of deliberately misleading the public by linking the Benghazi violence at first to an internet video insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

Mrs Clinton, stone-faced for much of the hearing, smiled in bemusement as Mr Jordan cut her off from answering. Eventually given the chance to comment, she said only that "some" people had wanted to use the video to justify the attack that killed US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, 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.

And it reflected some of the raw emotion the deadly violence continues to provoke, something Mrs Clinton will have to face over the next year of her White House bid even if the Republican-led special investigation loses steam.

For Mrs Clinton, the political theatre offered opportunity and potential pitfalls. It gave her a high-profile platform to show her self-control and command of foreign policy, but also left her vulnerable to claims that she helped politicise the Benghazi tragedy.

"There were probably a number of different motivations" for the attack, she said, describing a time when competing strands of intelligence were being received and no clear picture had yet emerged.

Speaking directly to Mr Jordan, she said: "The insinuations that you are making do a great disservice" to the diplomats and others involved.

"I'm sorry that it doesn't fit your narrative. I can only tell you what the facts were," she said.

There were no gaffes for Mrs Clinton and - beyond that exchange- few heated interactions. She never raised her voice as she had at a Senate hearing on Benghazi in January 2013, when she shouted: "What difference, at this point, does it make?"

Given that Republicans campaigned off that oft-repeated soundbite, the lack of an indelible image from Thursday's hearing will have suited Mrs Clinton's campaign.

Instead, it was the panel's members who engaged among themselves in the nastiest fight, with Mrs Clinton merely observing. Democrats pressed for the release of the full transcript of a Clinton adviser's private evidence, drawing Mr Gowdy into an angry debate. The panel eventually voted against the release, all five Democrats in favour, all seven Republicans against.

Mr Gowdy said important questions remained unanswered: Why was the US 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 afterwards?

"These questions linger because previous investigations were not thorough," he said.

Mrs Clinton, in turn, focused on the bigger picture, starting with a plea for the US to maintain its global leadership role despite the threat posed to its diplomats.

She said Benghazi had already been exhaustively scrutinised and that perfect security can never be achieved, drawing on the various attacks on US diplomatic and military installations overseas during the presidencies of her husband, Bill Clinton, in the 1990s and Ronald Reagan a decade earlier.

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