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Clinton Grilled on Security Lapses in Benghazi Attack

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the September attack on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya during a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington January 23, 2013.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the September attack on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya during a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington January 23, 2013.
VOA News
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified Wednesday before a Senate Committee about last year's attack on the U.S. mission in the Benghazi, Libya, in a hearing that included sharp criticism from lawmakers on her handling of the incident.  

Among her harshest critics on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was one-time Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain.

"There are many questions [about Benghazi] that are unanswered and the answers frankly that you have this morning are not satisfactory," he said.

Republican Senator Bob Corker said security shortfalls point to a larger problem.

"It seems to be Benghazi symbolizes just the woeful unpreparedness that our nation as it relates to issues in North Africa," he said.

Watch related video by VOA's Scott Stearns from the State Department

Clinton: Benghazi Attack Part of Broader Terrorist Challenge in Africai
January 23, 2013 8:35 PM
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says last September's attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi was part of wider terrorist insecurity across North Africa. As VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports, Clinton testified before Congress Wednesday about what she is doing to prevent such an attack in the future.

Clinton agreed, saying "Make no mistake about it.  We need a better strategy."

Republican Senator Ron Johnson questioned the administration's handling of the attack that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

"We were misled that there were supposedly protests and that somehow an assault sprang out of it," he said.  "And that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact.  And the American people could have known that within days."

The outgoing secretary of state said assigning blame is not helpful. 

"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 would go kill some Americans?  What difference, at this point, does it make?  It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything in our power to prevent it from ever happening again, senator," she said.

Watch a video clip of Clinton's testimony

Video of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Testimonyi
January 23, 2013 6:05 PM
Video of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Testimony

During her testimony, Clinton said the response to the attack from the State Department, the U.S. military and the Libyan government was "timely"  and said the Accountability Review Board investigating the attack found the response saved American lives.

Clinton said this issue is not just a matter of policy, it's personal.

"I stood next to President Obama as marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews [Air Force Base]. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters and wives left alone to raise their children," she said.

Growing threat in North Africa

Clinton issued a warning of her own, saying there is a growing jihadist threat across northern Africa.

"We have to recognize this is a global movement," she said. "We can kill leaders, but until we help establish strong democratic institutions, until we do a better job communication our values and building relationships, we are going to be faced with this level of instability."

Clinton said the Benghazi attack is part of a broader strategic challenge for the United States and African allies in the fight against terrorism.

"The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region. 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.

Clinton said the Obama administration remains in close contact with Algerian authorities about last week's hostage taking at a natural gas plant near the Libyan border and offers its deepest condolences to the families of those killed and injured.

"We are seeking to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent terrorist attacks like this in the future," she said.

Panel's findings

The Accountability Review Board that investigated the Benghazi attack said senior level "systematic failures and management deficiencies" within two State Department bureaus led to a security posture that was inadequate to deal with terrorist attacks at the facilities in Benghazi.  It said the number of diplomatic security staff members there at the time of the attack was "inadequate" in spite of repeated requests from diplomats in Libya for additional staffing.

It made many recommendations, including increased security at temporary facilities in high-risk areas. It also urged the State Department to lengthen the duty assignments for program and security personnel at high-risk posts.

The panel said the "short-term, transitory nature" of staffing at the Benghazi mission had resulted in "diminished institutional knowledge" and a lack of continuity.

Initial response criticized

The Benghazi attack and the initial response from the Obama administration became a highly charged issue in the weeks leading up to his November re-election.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice was criticized by Republican lawmakers after she initially described the attack as a "spontaneous reaction" to protests near the U.S. embassy in Cairo in response to an anti-Islamic video that was produced in the United States.

Rice said she was repeating information that had been provided to her by the U.S. intelligence community.

But the continued Republican criticism led Rice to withdraw her name from consideration to replace Clinton as secretary of state.

Scott Stearns contributed to this report from the State Department.

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