10.22.15

Hillary Clinton Confronts Republican Critics at Benghazi Hearing (New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton confronted Republican critics on the House Benghazi committee on Thursday with a challenge to “reach for statesmanship” in their long-running inquiry into the 2012 attacks that killed four Americans.

Testifying in the ornate and cavernous assembly room that is home to the House Ways and Means Committee, Mrs. Clinton hailed the memory of J. Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya, and the three others who died at the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi and again took responsibility for the attacks in which they died.

But the Democratic presidential candidate said that as secretary of state she had not personally approved or denied requests for extra security for the facility where they were based. And she insisted that the United States must not back away from diplomacy because of the incident.

 

“Retreat from the world is not an option,” Mrs. Clinton told lawmakers.

 

Mrs. Clinton’s comments followed an aggressive opening statement from Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, the chairman of the committee, who assailed the former secretary of state for having failed in her duty to safeguard American lives.

 

“Why were there so many requests for security equipment and personnel and why were those requests denied in Washington?” Mr. Gowdy demanded as Mrs. Clinton sat before the committee, staring with thinly veiled disgust. “What did our leaders in Washington do or not do, and when?”

 

Mrs. Clinton’s own opening statement was a measured defense of diplomacy and its inherent risks, while expressions of outrage over the committee’s investigation were left to Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland. Mr. Cummings said the investigation was a sham aimed at trying to destroy Mrs. Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

 

“It is time, and it is time now, for Republicans to end this taxpayer-funded fishing expeditions,” Mr. Cummings said, calling for what he said should be a “shift from politics to policy” in the inquiry about the Benghazi attacks.

 

Mr. Gowdy also criticized Mrs. Clinton for her use of a private email server to conduct official State Department business, an issue that has dogged Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign for months. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority leader, said recently that the emails had helped drive her poll numbers down.

 

But Mr. Gowdy insisted that the committee’s examination of the email issue had nothing to do with Mrs. Clinton’s political ambitions. He defended the committee’s investigation by saying that previous examinations of the attacks were not independent or thorough. And he rejected accusations that the latest Republican-led inquiry is aimed at her, not the attacks.

 

“Let me assure you it is not,” Mr. Gowdy said. “This investigation is about four people who were killed representing our country on foreign soil.”

 

But Mrs. Clinton’s emails nonetheless quickly took center stage at the hearing, with Representative Susan W. Brooks, Republican of Indiana, placing on the dais in front of her stacks of printed documents she said were hundreds of pages of Mrs. Clinton’s electronic correspondence. As Republicans grilled Mrs. Clinton, lawmakers referred to specific emails on a screen in the hearing room.

 

Sitting behind Mrs. Clinton during the hearing was David Kendall, her longtime personal lawyer; Cheryl Mills, her former chief of staff and longtime adviser; and Jake Sullivan, a top foreign policy adviser at the State Department. Ms. Mills and Mr. Sullivan were interviewed by the committee behind closed doors in September.

 

The hearing presents Mr. Gowdy and the other Republicans with a difficult political dilemma. Some in the party’s base fervently want them to score political points against Mrs. Clinton, but if the panel’s Republicans appear overzealous, Democrats and pundits will accuse them of partisanship and say the investigation has little credibility.

 

At congressional hearings in 2013, Mrs. Clinton said she accepted responsibility for security lapses in Benghazi. She has said that she had been briefed on how the security situation was deteriorating, but that requests for additional security were not sent directly to her.

 

Democratic criticism of the committee has been fueled by a series of statements by Republicans — including Mr. McCarthy — that the panel was created to hurt Mrs. Clinton. Seven other congressional committees have investigated the attacks, and Democrats have argued that there is not much more to learn. They say the committee has veered into areas like Mrs. Clinton’s emails that have nothing to do with its original mission.

 

“They are in a very difficult position in a way after 17 months and millions of dollars spent — they need something to show for it,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat on the committee.

 

Mr. Schiff said there was no evidence to substantiate two of the more serious accusations: that the military was told to stand down during the attacks, or that the United States was buying missiles and other weapons there and shipping them to Syria.

 

As for Mrs. Clinton’s email account, Mr. Gowdy has said he has a right to investigate the issue because the arrangement shielded her emails about Libya from the other congressional panels. Mr. Gowdy has said that he has uncovered new details about the attacks, but that he has not released them.