WASHINGTON — It was a high-stakes political showdown. In the heat of a U.S. presidential campaign, a major candidate was grilled all day Thursday by a congressional committee over tragic events that occurred under her watch.
Here are key takeaways from Hillary Rodham Clinton's long-awaited appearance before a House investigation into the attacks that killed four Americans at the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 when she was secretary of state:
1. Legitimate inquiry, or campaign attack? Democrats disparaged the process as an election-related farce. There was a shouting match. After seven previous Benghazi investigations, the committee's top Democrat said this multimillion-dollar inquiry had just one aim: "Derail Secretary Clinton's presidential campaign." Feeding those suspicions, a senior Republican recently credited the committee for hurting her poll numbers. But the chairman defended its work. In his opening remarks, Republican Trey Gowdy said previous investigations never even bothered to ask for Clinton's emails. "This is an investigation," Gowdy said. "This is not a prosecution."
2. Was Libya 'Hillary's War'? Republicans are hoping to brand it that way, and blame her for the chaotic aftermath. The secretary of defence, the vice-president and top State Department officials all expressed reservations: "You overruled those career diplomats," said Republican Peter Roskam. Clinton's explanation: the U.S. faced tremendous pressure from Britain, France and other countries desperate to prevent Col. Moammar Gadhafi from wiping out opponents he called cockroaches: "We did not immediately say yes," said Clinton, insisting options were carefully analyzed, and she noted American airstrikes didn't include one U.S. military death.
3. Did she lie? Republicans showed how she peddled two different stories in the aftermath. The context was the 2012 election, just weeks away. A popular Obama campaign talking point was, "GM's alive, Osama bin Laden is dead." In private, Clinton undermined the narrative. She emailed family on the night of the attack to say Americans were killed by "an al-Qaida-like group." That's less than an hour after she released a public statement seemingly blaming an anti-Muslim film: "Some have sought to justify the vicious behaviour as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet." One Republican accused Clinton of starting the false-narrative about the film. She said the video remark was meant more globally, given the angry protests at U.S. embassies in Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia: "I used those words (about a video) deliberately, not to ascribe a motive to every attacker but as a warning to those across the region that there was no justification for further attacks."
4. What about her emails? It was this committee's work that revealed Clinton never used a government email address. Her do-it-yourself email — firstname.lastname@example.org — shielded her from freedom-of-information requests. It might also have exposed state secrets to hackers, critics say. It's a criminal offence to mishandle classified U.S. material. Some of the emails she received have been retroactively classified. But Clinton played down the importance of emailed material. Clinton argues that none of it was classified at the time, although some is now retroactively classified. Important files weren't emailed, she said — they were delivered in a locked briefcase or discussed in person. She said she didn't even use email during office hours: "I didn't have a computer (in my office)." The FBI is now examining her server for security breaches.
5.Was she responsible for the security breakdown at Benghazi? Pleas for more security at the compound went unheeded. Clinton said those requests never even reached her — they were handled by security personnel. Republicans noted that far less urgent matters wound up in her email. She got emails requesting more milk, food and diesel fuel. One Republican asked: "What did make your inbox versus what did not?"
6. What was Clinton's attitude? Matter-of-fact. She avoided expressing disdain or frustration. There was no dismissive soundbite like one she delivered at a previous Benghazi committee two years ago: "What difference does it make?" She eschewed attitude this time, and stuck to facts. But her body-language spoke volumes. When Republicans railed at her, she buried her chin in her hand. When Democrats ridiculed the committee's work, she smiled. And she delivered one soundbite about the tragedy: "I've thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I've lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been racking my brain about what more could have been done."
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press