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Republicans press for answers from Clinton on Benghazi

Updated 3:30 p.m. ET - Senate Republicans pressed for more answers Thursday on what led to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi – with their focus squarely on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who will testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next month.

At a committee hearing Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., a potential 2016 presidential contender, said it was “puzzling” that the report from the Accountability Review Board Clinton appointed to investigate the attack places blame only on lower-level officials for giving insufficient attention to the security risks in Benghazi.

In the attack Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods, and Sean Smith, were killed.

Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Rep. Jane Harman talk about the attack on the U.S. consulate and why the host country needs to protect the United States' diplomats. They also debate how the U.S. can fix the security in these embassies. The panel then  turns the conversation to the campaign to discredit Sen. Chuck Hagel as a potential pick for Defense Secretary.

 

“There’s a lot of questions to be answered, including some that only Secretary Clinton can answer,” Rubio told NBC News after he left the hearing. “We need to know beyond the assistant secretary level -- where the report places most of the blame -- what did these senior officials know after the repeated meetings (with the Libyan prime minster and other Libyan officials). Libya was not some remote outpost somewhere… It was a place that the U.S. was heavily engaged in militarily.”

He said the possibility that the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi did not come up in meetings between Clinton and the Libyan officials or in meetings between other State Department officials and the Libyans “is deeply troubling to me.”

Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has resigned and three other officials have been relieved of duty, the department said late Wednesday.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said "accountability has been brought to bear with regard to four individuals who are very senior” at the State Department. But he added, “they're not taking the fall" for the attack.

Clinton has been out of the public eye for several days due to illness and a concussion she suffered after fainting. 

Substituting for Clinton in testimony before the committee Thursday was Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

“All of you who know Hillary know that she would rather be here today,” said committee chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is likely to be President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Clinton. “I assure you it is not her choice she is not here today and she looks forward to appearing before the committee in January. I want to make that clear.”

At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Benghazi attack Thursday afternoon, Chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R- Fla., said Clinton “has every intention of testifying before our committee by mid-January as soon as she gets the go-ahead from her doctor.”

And Ros-Lehtinen said the State Department’s claim that Congress had not provided sufficient funding was not persuasive. “Perhaps it should take a closer look at the (State Department) money that is being lavished on global climate change, a culinary diplomacy program, and other favored projects,” she said. “This money could have been used for providing diplomatic security…..”

Ros-Lehtinen said that the State Department was spending nearly $1 billion on global climate change programs. And she said that just the day before the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Clinton was “engaged in launching a new program called the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, where Americans chefs will travel the world to engage in ‘culinary diplomacy.’ Certainly this is an example of misplaced priorities.”

Burns told the committees that report by the Accountability Review Board (ARB) “takes a clear-eyed look at serious, systemic problems. Problems which are unacceptable. Problems for which – as Secretary Clinton has said -- we take responsibility.”

He said told the State Department has “already begun to fix” the security lapses that allowed the Benghazi attack to succeed.

On Tuesday the ARB report blamed State Department officials for “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” that led to the protection for the Benghazi facility that was “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”

Kerry said that “the report pulls no punches.” He said that “clearly mistakes were made” and that “there were clear warning signs” that the US facility in Benghazi was in danger in the weeks leading up to the attack.

“We get this right about 99 percent of the time,” Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides told the committee. “We would like to be at 100 percent.”

Kerry said that for years the Congress had underfunded the State Department and noted that the international affairs budget is less than one-tenth that of the Defense Department.

Kerry noted that the ARB report calls for spending $2.3 billion a year for 10 years to protect State Department personnel overseas.

But Sen. Bob Corker, R- Tenn., slated to be the senior Republican on the panel in 2013, vigorously dissented from that view. He told the hearing “he was “dismayed that this hearing has already focused on the need for additional money, which may well be needed,” but since the committee had not done a thorough review of how the State Department spends its approximately $50 billion in annual funding, “we have no idea whether the State Department is using its money wisely or not.”

He also asked why Clinton had not asked Congress before the attack to allow her to re-allocate State Department funding to ensure the Benghazi facility was secure.

He added later that there was a 16-person Defense Department security team in Libya who could have been shifted from Tripoli to Benghazi – and at no cost to the State Department other than lodging. “This has nothing to do with money,” he said.

Kerry said that American diplomats need to engage personally with the people in the nations where they are stationed, especially in the Middle East. “We have to be on the ground, outside the wire, reaching out to those people,” he said.

“Bad things have happened before and bad things will happen again unfortunately in the future,” he said. “We do not want to concertina-wire America off from the world.”

Rubio told NBC News that there was larger lesson in the Benghazi attack: “One of the factors that led to the Sept. 11 attack was “the inability of the Libyan central government to have any control over militias” and that, he argued, was “a direct result of a policy decision made to ‘lead from behind.’”

He said the Obama administration got engaged “too late” and “not decisively enough” in Libya. “The reason why there are all these multiple militias in Libya is because this was a protracted conflict that created the opportunity and the space for these militias to form – similar to what we’re seeing now in Syria.”

If the United States had gotten decisively engaged in Libya, Rubio contended, the conflict “would have ended a lot sooner and the opportunity for these militias to form would have been diminished.”