WASHINGTON — The first questions that former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton faced in a hearing about the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya had little to do with the attacks that killed them – but rather, were an effort to tie Clinton to the decision to use U.S. military power in Libya in the first place.
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., reading from emails between Clinton and her staff, cast himself as an advocate for Clinton herself – “crediting” her with pushing the United States into an air attack on Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. The point was actually to blame her, since what followed Gaddafi’s defeat has been chaos and the risk of Islamist groups in the Libyan power vacuum.
“You were able to overcome opposition within the State Department” to military action against Libya, Roskam said. “You saw it, you drove it, you articulated it, and you persuaded people. Did I get that wrong?”
“Well, congressman, I was the secretary of state,” Clinton replied. She said that the decision to launch warplanes against Libya was made by President Barack Obama, not her – and that other countries, in Europe and the Middle East, had asked the United States to join them in the offensive.
Those questions shed little light on the exact circumstances of the attacks that killed the four. But they served an important political purpose: Republicans are keen to tie Clinton to the troubled state of Libya itself, as evidence of her poor judgment in international affairs. At the end of his questioning period, Roskam cut Clinton off to make his point directly.
“Our Libya policy couldn’t have happened without you,” he said. “After your plan, things in Libya today are a disaster. I yield back [the balance of my time].”
Earlier in the hearing, Clinton had sought to portray herself as above political questions and to portray the panel as second-guessing the necessary risks taken by U.S. diplomats abroad.
She began her testimony by naming the four dead, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. She said she’d known Stevens, recommended him for the job, and met his casket when it returned to American soil after the 2012 attacks.
“Nobody knew the dangers of Libya better [than Stevens]. A weak government. Extremist groups. Rampant instability,” Clinton said. “But Chris chose to go to Benghazi because he knew that America had to be represented there at this critical time.”
In her statement, Clinton sought to get in front of the day’s questions, which are likely to focus on the security precautions at the two American facilities where the four died. It was a “pre-buttal,” to use the political term, in which Clinton portrayed that kind of question as contrary to the spirit of diplomatic work.
“Retreat from the world is not an option,” Clinton said. “America cannot shrink from our responsibility to lead.”
Clinton ended her opening statement with an admonition to the committee itself, to ask questions that were not intended to undermine her politically.
“I’m here. Despite all the previous investigations, and all the talk about partisan agendas, I’m here to honor those we lost,” Clinton said. “My challenge to you, members of this committee, is the same challenge I put to myself. Let’s be worthy of the trust the American people have bestowed upon us.”
Earlier, the committee’s top Republican opened the hearing with a long defense of its right to exist. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., began by talking about his own work – defending his committee from allegations that it is a partisan effort disguise as a fact-finding panel. That suggestion was made by a top member of the House GOP, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, a few weeks earlier. McCarthy, pressed to say what results the Republican majority had produced, noted that Clinton’s presidential poll numbers had declined after the House investigation began its work.
“There are people – frankly in both parties – that have suggested that this investigation is about you. It is not,” said Gowdy, a former prosecutor elected to Congress in 2010. “It is about what happened before, during, and after the attacks that killed them. It is about what this country owes to those who risk their lives to serve it. And it is about the fundamental responsibility of government to tell the truth.”
Gowdy, in his opening statement, listed what he said were flaws in past investigations, saying they were either incomplete or too close to the Obama administration. He said that his committee was the first to discover valuable facts, including that Clinton had used a private emails server to conduct government business at the time of the attacks.
He said that Clinton had not been interviewed on the Hill until now because of Clinton’s own emails arrangement, which meant she took valuable emailss with her when she left office.
“You kept the public record to yourself for almost two years,” Gowdy said. “And it was you and your attorneys who decided what to turn in and what to delete.”
The top Democrat on the committee, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, followed Gowdy with his own opening statement – an attack on his own panel’s credibility. Cummings charged that the House’s Benghazi committee had passed up chances to interview other government officials, in order to focus on Clinton herself.
“They set up this Select Committee with no rules, no deadline, and an unlimited budget. And they set them loose, madam secretary, because you’re running for president,” Cummings said. ” Republicans are squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on this abusive effort to derail Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”
Cummings noted comments from McCarthy and others that he said indicated the partisan nature of the committee’s work, under Gowdy’s leadership. He called the committee “this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition.”
Organizers have said they expect four rounds of questioning, with each of the committee’s seven Republicans and five Democrats allowed 10 minutes during a questioning period.
The attacks in Benghazi – carried out by militants on the night of Sept. 11, 2012 and early the following morning – killed Stevens, as well as a State Department communications specialist and two security contractors protecting a CIA “annex.”
At the time of the attacks, Clinton was secretary of state. The members of the committee – especially the Republicans – are likely to press her about security lapses that made the U.S. facilities in Benghazi vulnerable. They will also ask about Clinton’s reaction to the violence that night, and about the Obama administration’s public statements in the days after the attack.
It seems unlikely that substantial new information about the Benghazi attacks themselves will emerge from Clinton’s testimony. She has already been through a full day of congressional questioning, in late 2013, and the State Department has provided answers to other investigations on the topic.
But on Thursday, Clinton is likely to be pressed about an issue that has emerged since that 2013 testimony. In the course of its work, the House Benghazi committee discovered that Clinton had used a private emails address, and a private emails server, to conduct State Department business.
Clinton’s use of that server, housed at her home in New York, became a revelation that has dogged her presidential campaign this year. On Thursday, she could face more questions about why she did not use government emails, whether her emailss were vulnerable to hackers, and about whether she has turned over all her private emailss related to the Benghazi attacks.
On Wednesday, in advance of Clinton’s testimony, Democrats on the Benghazi committee released a transcript of testimony from one of Clinton’s top aides at the State Department. The testimony from Cheryl Mills, given in a closed hearing last month included an account that Clinton had worked late into the night, “devastated” by the news of the deaths.
“What she really was communicating that night is, ‘I’m here because I want my team safe. I’m not here .. . . for any other reason,'” Mills recalled, according to the transcript.
Democrats published the transcript over the objections of Republicans. They said that selective GOP leaks have provided an incomplete and biased account of Clinton’s actions that night.
“Multiple Republican admissions over the past month have made clear to the American people what we have been witnessing firsthand inside the Select Committee for the past year – Republicans are spending millions of taxpayer dollars on a partisan campaign to damage Secretary Clinton’s bid for president,” Cummings said in a statement.
A federal indictment issued in the District of Columbia last year charged Ahmed Abu Khattala, captured in 2013 in Libya, with the murder of all four Americans. It said he organized the attack against the diplomatic compound because he thought it was a front for a secret CIA facility in Benghazi.
Washington Post staff writers Elise Viebeck and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.