WASHINGTON (AFP) - Hillary Clinton accused Republican rivals on Thursday of exploiting the deadly Benghazi attacks in Libya in 2012 for political gain, as the White House hopeful fought back during a marathon grilling in Congress.
In highly-anticipated testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, the Democratic presidential frontrunner repeated that she took ultimate responsibility for the tragedy that left four Americans dead including ambassador Christopher Stevens.
But she said she was never consulted directly about requests for additional security at the US diplomatic compound that was overrun by Islamist extremists on Sept 11, 2012.
And President Barack Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013 warned against the “partisan agendas” that Democrats say are driving the Benghazi probe, in a bid to sabotage her presidential ambitions.
She instead urged lawmakers looking into the attacks to work with her and “reach for statesmanship” in seeking to prevent similar deaths elsewhere.
“I’m here to honour the service of those four men,” Clinton said in her opening remarks, coming 17 months after the Republican-led committee launched its investigation.
If she performs well, Clinton could convince sceptical voters that it is time to move on from the controversy that has dogged her campaign.
But should she stumble on such a consequential day, with her remarks carried live on several US networks, Clinton could face a heightened barrage of Republican attacks on her judgment and diplomatic acumen during the 13-month run up to the November 2016 election.
Clinton sounded serious and confident as she advocated for a muscular foreign policy, stressing the need for the United States to accept risks as it pursues its vital interests in a dangerous world, and to acknowledge that it can “never prevent every act of terrorism or achieve perfect security.”
“Chris Stevens understood that diplomats must operate in many places where our soldiers do not,” she said.
There were sharp exchanges with Republican lawmakers, particularly over the way the administration first publicly characterised the attack – which came weeks before the 2012 presidential election – as a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video online.
“Libya was supposed to be... this great success story for the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department,” as they highlighted global security gains since Obama took office, conservative congressman Jim Jordan said in a fiery critique. “And now you have a terrorist attack.”
“You can live with the protest about a video. That won’t hurt you. But a terrorist attack will.”
“Where did the false narrative start?” Jordan asked. “It started with you, Madam Secretary.”
Clinton bristled at what she called “insinuations,” insisting that “we did the best we could with the information that we had at the time.”
The Benghazi committee has been deeply controversial, and in recent weeks GOP lawmakers including the number two Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, suggested that the panel served to help damage Clinton’s standing in the presidential race.
Democrats have piled on, accusing the Republican investigators of conducting a fishing expedition against Clinton.
‘I TAKE RESPONSIBILITY’
But committee chairman Trey Gowdy, in his opening remarks, denied the probe was about Clinton.
“Let me assure you it is not,” he said, adding that it was driven by respect for the Benghazi victims. “They deserve nothing but the truth.”
Clinton did not shrink from her role.
“I take responsibility for what happened in Benghazi,” she stressed, reiterating a message to lawmakers months after the tragedy.
The US Congress has conducted seven probes into the attack, and Clinton launched an Accountability Review Board to investigate the events.
The board’s report did not fault the State Department for the attacks but cited “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” that resulted in inadequate security.
Critics have pointed to the department’s rebuff of requests for additional US security measures in Libya, which remained unstable in the aftermath of the ouster of strongman Moamer Kadhafi.
Some argued Clinton was responsible for rejecting the security upgrade.
But she insisted Thursday that such requests, or rejection of requests, very rarely reached her desk.
“None of them with respect to security in Benghazi did,” she said.
She said that in the aftermath of the exhaustive US reviews, as secretary of state she “moved to correct” the security shortcomings as recommended by the review board.
The Benghazi tragedy has hovered over Clinton for three years, threatening to upend her candidacy especially after the committee’s investigation led to the revelation that she used a homebrew email account and server while she was top diplomat.
Democrats have debated whether Clinton’s candidacy was made vulnerable by the Benghazi probe, considerations that no doubt reached Vice President Joe Biden as he mulled his own White House run.
But Biden’s announcement Wednesday that he will not seek the presidency likely eased pressure on Clinton ahead of her congressional appearance.