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Clinton Testifies on Libya Attack: Senators Menendez, Corker, Boxer and Risch Questioning Hillary Clinton

Aired January 23, 2013 - 09:30   ET


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Our men and women who serve overseas understand that we accept a level of risk to protect the country we love. And they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation. They cannot work in bunkers and do their jobs.

So, it is our responsibility to make sure they have the resources they need and to do everything we can to reduce the risks.

For me, this is not just a matter of policy, it's 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, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children.

It has been one of the great honors of my life to lead the men and women of the State Department and USAID, nearly 70,000 serving here in Washington, more than 270 posts around the world. They get up and get to work every day, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances, because they believe, as we believe, the United States is the most extraordinary force for peace and progress the world has ever known.

And when we suffer tragedies overseas, as we have, the number of Americans applying to the Foreign Service actually increases.

That tells us everything we need to know about what kind of patriots I'm talking about. They do ask what they can do for their country and America is stronger for it.

So, today, after four years in this job, traveling nearly a million miles, visiting 112 countries, my faith in our country and our future is stronger than ever. Every time that blue and white airplane carrying the word "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 keep the United States safe, strong, and exceptional.

So I want to thank this committee for your partnership and your support of diplomats and development experts. You know the importance of the work they do, day in and day out. You know that America's values and vital national security interests are at stake.

And I appreciate what ranking member Corker just said. It is absolutely critical that this committee and the State Department, with your new secretary and former chairman, work together to really understand and address the resources, support, and changes that are needed to face what are increasingly complex threats.

I know you share my sense of responsibility and urgency, and while we may not agree on everything, let's stay focused on what really matters, protecting our people and the country we love.

And thank you for the support you personally have given to me over the last four years. I now would be happy to take your questions.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Thank you, Madam Secretary.

We have a full committee present. So in order to give each member an opportunity to ask questions in the time frame that we have the secretary, I'm going to limit those questions to five minutes, and I'll start with myself.

Madam Secretary, we saw late night reporting on discussions about the physical location of the mission Benghazi. And I understand this information came from a production of documents by the department, which we appreciate your cooperation in providing those documents.

My understanding is that the location of mission Benghazi was an ongoing one, and that the ultimate conclusion of Ambassador Stevens was that we needed to be in Benghazi, the cradle of the Libyan revolution, and that while he continuously reviewing other location options, that it was his conclusion, as well as that of security personnel on the department, that the current mission site was the best choice despite a higher price tag, because it was more secure than returning to the hotel where there had been a bomb and bomb threats, or moving closer to the annex, because it was closer to the road.

Can you give us your insights on the decision making process regarding the location of the mission? And as part of that, can you also in your response -- you touched upon it in your opening statement, but what actions were you and your staff taking the night of September 11th and into September the 12th?

CLINTON: Well, first, you're right, Mr. Chairman, that there was an ongoing discussion. When Chris first landed in Benghazi, he stayed in a hotel, along with other representatives of different nations. There were attacks in the vicinity, including in the parking lot of the hotel. The decision was made to move. The compound was selected as being a much better location in terms of security than the alternatives.

But there was an ongoing discussion between Chris and others in the embassy in Tripoli, those going in and out of Benghazi, about how best to situate our post there. I did see some overnight reporting about a document I'm not sure what it is, but I would observe that there were a lot of ongoing efforts because, it was important that we were constantly asking what was the best place.

As you said, in general, Chris was committed to not only being in Benghazi, but to the location. The professionals in Washington paid close attention to Chris' judgment based on his experience and his firsthand knowledge. And so, we stayed, we continued to try to upgrade the facility that was attacked. Obviously, as the ARB has pointed out, there were inadequacies in the response, and those are the specific kind of recommendations that we are currently implementing.

Regarding what I was doing on September 11th, I was at the State Department all day and late into the night. At the -- during most of the day, prior to getting notice of the attack on our compound at Benghazi, we were very focused on our embassy in Cairo. That was under assault by a group of protesters.

We were assessing the security of our embassy, which is, as those of you have been there, certainly well-defensed. But there were crowds that were intent upon trying to scale the wall and, we were in close communication with our team in Cairo.

I was notified of the attack shortly after 4:00 p.m. Over the following hours, we were in continuous meetings and conversations, both within the department, with our team in Tripoli, with the inner agency, and internationally. I instructed our senior department officials and our diplomatic security personnel to consider every option, to just break down the doors of the Libyan officials to get as much security support as we possibly could, to coordinate with them.

I spoke to the national security adviser, Tom Donilon, several times. I briefed him on developments. I sought all possible support from the White House, which they quickly provided. Tom was my first call.

I spoke with our charger in Tripoli, to get situation updates.

I spoke with former CIA director Petraeus to confer and coordinate, given the presence of his facility, which, of course, was not well known, but was something that we knew and wanted to make sure we were closely lashed up together.

I talked with the then-Libyan national congress president, to press him on greater support, not only in Benghazi, but also in Tripoli.

I participated in a secure video conference of senior officials from the intelligence community, the White House, and DOD. We were going over every possible option, reviewing all that was available to us. Any actions we could take.

We were reaching out to everyone we could find, to try to get an update about ambassador Chris Stevens, also, our information specialist, Sean Smith.

So it was a constant, ongoing discussion and sets of meetings. I spoke with President Obama later in the evening, to, you know, bring him up to date, to hear his perspective. Obviously, we kept talking with everyone during the night. Early in the morning, on the 12th, I spoke with General Dempsey, again, with Tom Donilon.

The two hardest calls that I made were obviously to the families of Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. And, you know, they, I have to say, were extraordinary in their responses, in their understanding of the pride we had in both men, and gratitude we had for their service.

I would also just quickly add, Mr. Chairman, that while this was going on, we were continuing to face protests, demonstrations, violence across the region, and as far as India and Indonesia. There were so many protests happening and thousands of people were putting our facilities at risk.

So we were certainly very determined to do whatever we could about Benghazi. We were relieved when we finally got the last of Americans out of Benghazi, but then we were turning around, dealing with the very serious threats facing so many of our other facilities.

MENENDEZ: Thank you very much. My time has expired.

Senator Corker?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Madam Secretary, I agree with you, when people go into the field to do the things they do, they do it knowing of the risk. And I agree with you, one of the untold stories here is that the heroic nature of many in Libya and what they did to save lives. I met several of the JSOC folks and others who risked their lives saving others.

But I also have to say, in reading all the cables that many of us have done, there were systemic deficiencies, and I know you know that.

And I'd like you to just speak to that for a moment. To my knowledge, no one has been held accountable. Our staff had a meeting with one of the State Department officials and I hate to use this word again -- but it was nothing short of bizarre as they talked about the communications.

These officials were screaming out for more security. And I'm just wondering if you might mention one reform that would be helpful, so that you would have known of the needs there of security, that went undone.

CLINTON: Well, obviously, I have thought about this almost constantly since that date, Senator, because, you know, I do feel responsible. I feel responsible for the nearly 70,000 people who work for the State Department. I take it very seriously.

The specific security requests pertaining to Benghazi, you know, were handled by the security professionals in the department. I didn't see those requests. They didn't come to me. I didn't approve them, I didn't deny them.

That's, obviously, one of the findings that Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen made, you know, that these requests don't come to the secretary of state.

CORKER: If we could, I know -- I respect you tremendously, but we have a short amount of time. They did come into folks.

CLINTON: That's right. CORKER: We did have SST people on the ground, at no cost to the State Department. They were asked to be extended, by the ambassador. Someone at State Department turned that down. They were at no charge, 16 officers.

So I just wonder, what has happened inside to make sure that never happens again?

CLINTON: Well, several things. Not only are we on the path to implement all of the ARB recommendations, but we've gone beyond that.

We did immediately do this high-threat assessment, using DOD assets, as well as our own. That had never been done before.

We have asked the Congress to help us re-allocate funds. The Senate has given us that authority. We don't yet have it from the House. So that we can get more Marine guards, we can get more diplomatic security guards, we can try to put more money into the maintenance, the upgrades, the construction that's needed.

I created the first ever -- it sounds like it should have been done years ago -- but the first ever deputy assistant secretary for high threats. I'm also recommending that there be a regular process that includes a secretary and the deputies in these decisions, because nobody wants to sit where I am, and, you know, have to think now about what could've, should've, would've happened in order to avoid this.

Now, as I said, we've had 19 ARBs. Only two have ever been unclassified. The one coming out of the East Africa bombings, where there was full transparency, there was a set of recommendations, many of which have been implemented, along with recommendations from other ARBs. But this committee never had a public hearing about the 17 other ARBs, because they were classified.

So, we're putting into action steps that we think will help the next secretary be able to make these decisions, be part of these decisions, have more insight into what is going on, and we would, obviously, welcome the opportunity to work closely with a subcommittee or a set of members to make sure that that's what's happening.

CORKER: Well, thank you. I will, just many -- 19 or 17 have been done. I will say none of them have ever been fully implemented.

CLINTON: Senator, that's not accurate, because I-I heard you say that when Bill Burns and Tom Nides were here, and it shocked me. So we did-we went back, we did a full and thorough investigation. The vast majority have been implemented. And we will give you a report to that effect. Because that's the (inaudible) of-to go back to your point, Senator, if there were an authorization process, that's the kind of information that would be shared. And I see my-my former compatriot on the Armed Services Committee- there is always an Armed Services authorization, and there needs always to be a Foreign Relations Committee authorization. CORKER: Now it's my sense-my last question-now, it's my sense that as a nation, we were woefully unprepared for what happened in Northern Africa in general. I think you share that view. And I just wonder-I know you've made some opening comments regarding us leading in that area, but it seems to me that Benghazi symbolizes just the woeful unpreparedness that our nation had as it relates to-to issues in North Africa. And I hope you'll address that as you move ahead. CLINTON: Well, Senator let me just briefly address what is, I think, one of the key issues for this committee, for the administration, for our country. When I was here four years ago testifying for my confirmation, I don't think anybody thought that Mubarak would be gone, Gadhafi would be gone, that Ben Ali would be gone, that we would have such revolutionary change in this region. There were hints of it. Several of us, you know said the institutions were sinking in the sand, as I said in-in Doha shortly before Tahrir Square. So there were-there was some healing out there, but I don't think any of us predicted this. Least of all the people in these countries who then were given a chance to chart their own futures. This is a great opportunity as well as a serious threat to our country. I hope we seize the opportunity. It's not going to be easy, because these new countries have no experience with democracy. They don't have any real experience among the leaders in running countries, in doing security. So, yes we now face a spreading jihadist threat. We have driven a lot of the AQ operatives out of the FATA, out of Afghanistan, Pakistan. Killed a lot of them, including of course, bin Laden. But we have to recognize this is a global movement. We can kill leaders, but until we help establish strong democratic institutions, until we do a better job communicating our values and building relationships, we're going to be faced with this level of instability. And I do have a lot of thoughts about what more we can, and should do, given this new reality we face. CORKER: Thank you again. MENENDEZ: Senator Boxer? SEN. BARBARA BOXER, (D) CALIFORNIA: Thank you very much. Madam Secretary, you have represented our country with tremendous strength and poise. You've won us friends, but you've always spoken out forcefully where required. I want to thank you because this is maybe the last time you come before us as secretary here. I want to thank you for your advocacy on behalf of women around the globe. You will be sorely missed, but I for one hope not for too long. As you have said, you were heartbroken by those losses in Benghazi. We saw it in your face many times, today as well. You were heartbroken personally, and professionally. But rather than pointing to others for their deficiencies, you stepped up, and you convened an Accountability Review Board to look into this attack in detail, and you asked them to tell it the way they saw it. And I want to give you my take on that board. I want to go to something Senator Corker said, which I agree with.

BOXER: The first report we got from the intelligence community about a week or so after, was very confusing. It -- it was not helpful to us. All of us, I think felt that way. But I want to speak for myself. The difference between that meeting, and the meeting we had with those co-chairs, which was also a classified briefing, couldn't have been more different. They were so impressive. They were thorough. They were strong. They did call it the way they saw it, the way you wanted them to do.

And I am grateful that you have unequivocally committed to ensuring that their recommendations are implemented to the fullest -- fullest extent.

And this brings me to a question. As we all know, the House of Representatives urged and voted for a cut of $300 million for embassy security. Now, maybe it's irrelevant for some here, but I have a message: It does cost money to pay for embassy security, or police on the beat, or military personnel, or police here at the Capitol that protect us, which we're very grateful for -- and we pay for. It does cost money.

So to me, I was not disappointed to hear the co-chair say, quote, "Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives."

Frankly, I think it's a no-brainer. And the fact we would even have a problem with it, to me, doesn't make any sense.

I hope we can work together to get resources that we need for security. Which brings me to a question about working more closely with the DOD. And -- and here it is: Have you already engaged with DOD to provide additional Marines at U.S. facilities to fulfill the ARB's recommendation that State and DOD work together to provide more capabilities and capacities at higher risk posts?

And before you answer that, could you maybe address the issue in Mali now. When you look at Mali you see a government that is weak. They don't have the best security. Are we working on that post?

CLINTON: Well, Senator, thank you. You've raised a lot of very important issues. I'll try to be as quick as I can in responding to them.

Let me start with the budget, because this is a bipartisan issue. Since 2007, the department has consistently requested greater funding for embassy construction and diplomatic security. With the exception of 2010, Congress has consistently enacted less than requested. Most notably, in 2012, the department received $340 million less than requested, close to 10 percent less than the request.

And then over the last two years, cuts to embassy construction, security and maintenance budgets were almost 10 percent off, as well.

Now, the ARB, as you said, has recommended an increase in facilities funding to $2.2 billion per year to restore the construction levels called for in the 1998 ARB report, the only other one that was ever public.

And I -- I would go back to something the chairman said, because this was a point made in the ARB: Consistent shortfalls have required the department to prioritize available funding out of security accounts. And I will be the first to say that the prioritization process was at times imperfect, but as the ARB said, the funds provided were inadequate. So we need to work together to overcome that.

We are asking for funding for more Marine security guards, for refilling the capital account so that we can begin to do the kind of upgrades and construction that's needed. Deputy Secretary Nides briefed House and Senate appropriations and authorizing staff. We sent letters to the House and Senate leadership to ask for transfer authority language -- not new money right now, but transfer authority language.

The Senate was good enough to put it into the Senate version of the Sandy supplemental. It did not get into the House side. So we're still looking for the House to act.

With respect to Mali, Senator, there was a country that had been making progress on its democracy. Unfortunately, it suffered a military coup by low-ranking military officers which threw it into a state of instability.

With the Tuaregs, who, as you know, some groups of as well as other groups had been in the employ of Gadhafi for years. He used them as mercenaries. With his fall they came out of Libya, bringing huge amounts of weapons from the enormous stores of weapons that Gadhafi had that insurgents liberated, as well as others. And they came into northern Mali. At the same time, there was a move by Al Qaida in the Maghreb to establish a base in northern Mali.

We have been working to try to upgrade security around northern Mali among a number of the countries. Algeria is the only one with any real ability to do that. Most of these countries don't have the capacity to do that.

We are now trying to help put together an African force from ECOWAS so that African soldiers will be in the front of this fight. The Malians asked the French to come in. Obviously, France is one of our -- our oldest allies. We are trying to provide support to them.

But this is going to be a very serious, on-going threat. Because if you look at the size of northern Mali, if you look at the topography, it's not only desert, it's caves -- sounds reminiscent. We are in for a struggle.

But it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven. People say to me all the time, well, AQIM hasn't attacked the United States. Well, before 9/11, 2001, we hadn't been attacked on our homeland since, I guess, the War of 1812 and -- and Pearl Harbor. So you can't say, well, because they haven't done something they're not going to do it.

This is not only a terrorist syndicate, it is a criminal enterprise. So make no mistake about it, we've got to have a better strategy. And I would hope we have not only a strategy that understands, you know, making it possible for these governments to defend themselves better, for people to understand and agree with us that these terrorists are not in any way representative of their values, but that we can bolster democracy and try to give these Arab revolutions a real chance to succeed.

BOXER: Thank you.

MENENDEZ: Senator Risch? SEN. JAMES RISCH, ( R) IDAHO: Madam Secretary, thank you for your service. And thank you for the kindness you've shown this committee over the time you've been there. Particularly appreciate your facilitating the meetings with us at the State Department with yourself when we've had issues.

Moving to the issues at hand, this morning, the national media is reporting that some of the -- or a number of the attackers in Algeria are people who participated in the attack in Benghazi. Can you confirm that for us this morning?

CLINTON: Senator, I cannot confirm it. I can give you the background that I was able to obtain.

This information is coming from the Algerian government related to their questioning of certain of the terrorists that they took alive. We don't have any way to confirm it as yet, but I can certainly assure you, we will do everything we can to determine that.

You may know that Director Mueller was just in the region meeting with leaders. He's very well aware that we have to track every one of these connections. And this will be a new thread that will be followed.

RISCH: I appreciate that.

One -- only one person has been arrested regarding the attack on Benghazi, and was then released. Can you tell us whether he was one of the people that participated in the Algerian attack?

CLINTON: We have no information to that effect. I think you're referring to the Tunisian harzi (ph) who appeared in a Tunisian court. Upon his release, I called the Tunisian prime minister. A few days later Director Mueller met with the Tunisian prime minister.

We have been assured that he is under the monitoring of the court. He was released, because at that time -- and -- and Director Mueller and I spoke about this at some length -- there was not an ability for evidence to be presented yet that was capable of being presented in an open court. But the Tunisians have assured us that they are keeping an eye on him. I have no reason to believe he is not still in Tunis, but we are checking that all the time.

RISCH: Thank you.

You just testified in your prepared remarks that -- you said, quote, "The very next morning," which would have been Wednesday morning, "I told the American people that," quote, 'heavily armed militants assaulted our compound, and -- and vowed to bring them to justice.'"

I'm assuming that you had rock solid evidence to make such a bold statement at that time.

CLINTON: Well, we had four dead people and we had several injured -- one seriously, who's still in Walter Reed. And although we did not have the chance yet to meet with any of our returnees, our team in Tripoli had received them, gotten medical care for them, and had sent them on.

So we knew that clearly there was an attack, a heavily armed attack. Who these people were, where they came from, why they did it, that was still to be determined.

RISCH: I think you probably know where I'm going with this. The next sentence is, "and I stood with President Obama as he spoke of an act of terror." And of course there's been a lot of debate as to the context that the word "terror" was used in.

But be that as it may, I want to move to the next Sunday morning when Ambassador Rice went to the Sunday morning talk shows.