The political stakes will be high Wednesday morning when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about her role in the events leading up to the September attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The stakes will also be high for a Republican member of the committee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whom some pundits see as a possible presidential candidate in 2016. It will be a rare instance when one potential White House hopeful gets an opportunity to interrogate a potential rival from the opposing party. Clinton herself is thought to be a strong contender for the Democratic nomination, should she chose to throw her hat into the ring.
Gary Cameron / Reuters
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the State Department in Washington January 18, 2013.
Rubio said Tuesday that he hoped Clinton’s testimony would shed light on “the decision-making process in terms of the amount of security that was at the consulate. She has a unique insight that no one else in the State Department can offer, so we look forward to hearing about that.”
Last month, a report issued by the Accountability Review Board (appointed by Clinton to investigate the attack) blamed State Department officials for “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” that led to protection for the Benghazi facility that was “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
Rubio said Tuesday that one aspect of the report that bothered him was “how much blame was put on lower-level officials in the State Department when in fact this (Benghazi) is a high-profile assignment, a high-profile installation, where we should have been aware of some of the security risks that existed.”
In an interview last October, Clinton said, “I take responsibility. I’m in charge of the State Department, 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president certainly wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.”
The furor over the Benghazi attack has already helped derail one possible nominee to replace Clinton at the State Department, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, whom Republicans assailed for using administration talking points that portrayed the incident as a spontaneous response to an inflammatory anti-Islamic video.
Asked whether there was any way that Wednesday’s hearing could not become a political event or spectacle, Rubio responded, “Everyone here takes their job seriously. We understand that everyone involved cared for and highly valued the people whose lives were lost. But mistakes were made and it’s important to understand why they were made and how they were made so that they’re never made again.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., talks about Wednesday's Benghazi hearings and previews Sen. John Kerry's upcoming confirmation hearing.
A newly elected Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, said Tuesday, “My perspective is looking forward. I want to understand how we can better secure (U.S. diplomatic) complexes across the globe and how we can make the case here in Washington that we need the money to do it. There were resource pressures on the State Department to make decisions on security and we need to be able to have the ammunition to make the case here to increase their budget.”
Murphy said he did not see the question of whether Clinton was personally responsible for lapses in security at the Benghazi facility as the central issue in the hearing. “The decisions that were made (regarding security in Benghazi) clearly didn’t reach Secretary Clinton’s desk and I want her thoughts on how we make sure this doesn’t happen again,” the Connecticut Democrat said.
Murphy, who served three terms in the House before winning a Senate seat, criticized Republicans on the House Oversight Committee for politicizing the Benghazi attack and for running a Benghazi hearing last year that he called “a debacle, a political charade. I’m hopeful that tomorrow’s hearing won’t be the same.”
One senator not on the Foreign Affairs Committee but who has led the call for the Obama administration to be more forthcoming about the attack, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she hoped to find out from Clinton’s testimony what Clinton was told about security threats to the U.S. facility and what she was told about prior attacks on the facility. She asked, “Does she believe in the characterization that the security was substantial and significant? That was the characterization that Ambassador Rice gave to the nation. And what conversations did she have with the president about securing the consulate?”
Ayotte made the connection Tuesday between the turmoil in Libya – in which jihadists seized weapons stockpiles that had been amassed by the regime of toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi – and the danger of a similar outcome in Syria, where the security of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles is doubt.
Ayotte, a member of a bipartisan Senate delegation that just returned from the Middle East, said, “We have seen the lesson learned, for example, in Libya.”
She said on the Senate delegation’s trip, “We heard in Egypt about weapons from Libya being shipped to the Sinai from Libya. There are reports that there may be connections between weapons from Libya and the (hostage taking) incident in Algeria (in which 37 were killed). We heard from leaders in the Middle East that these weapons are going throughout the Middle East from Libya. We’ve heard concerns about weapons (from Libya) getting the wrong hands…. When you don’t secure weapons and they get in the wrong hands, you put tools in the hands of terrorists.”
A theme from Rubio and other Republicans has been the Obama administration got engaged “too late” and “not decisively enough” in Libya, allowing chaos to prevail in some parts of the country. “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,” Rubio said after a Dec. 20 Foreign Relations Committee hearing.