Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton is facing a second round of questions about the 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya – beginning with new questions about why a Clinton loyalist could get messages to her inbox, while the American ambassador in Libya had to send his concerns about security through official channels.
“Help us understand how Sidney Blumenthal had that kind of access to you, Madam Secretary, but the ambassador did not,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of the House committee set up to investigate those attacks. Blumenthal was a friend of the Clinton family, though hardly an expert on Libya, who repeatedly sent reports about that country to the private e-mail address that Clinton used to conduct State Department business.
“Sid Blumenthal was not my adviser, official or unofficial, about Libya. . . . On occasion, I did forward what he sent me to be sure that it was in the mix,” Clinton said. She compared Blumenthal to other friends who would buttonhole her at parties or pass her newspaper articles, trying to be helpful.
That line of questioning typified the course of the entire hearing, which began at 10 a.m. Thursday.
It has revealed little new information about the attacks that killed the American Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three others on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, and early the next morning. Instead, Republicans on the committee have focused more broadly on questions about Clinton’s judgment, using Blumenthal — and Clinton’s willingness to listen to him — as evidence that she gave friends access that she did not give to her own officials.
Clinton’s response was that e-mail records, which served as the committee’s primary sources, were not enough to understand whom she listened to.
“You didn’t need my e-mail address to get my attention,” she said.
Earlier Thursday, the first round of official questioning ended with bickering among Democrats and Republicans on the committee itself: Gowdy and Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). It began when Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Gowdy to release a transcript of past testimony by Blumenthal — who had sent e-mails about Libya to the private e-mail account Clinton used to conduct government business.
“Let the world see it!” Cummings shouted, after Gowdy had questioned Clinton about how — and why — she forwarded Blumenthal’s e-mails to State Department officials. Cummings pushed for a vote to release the transcript, saying that a House “parliamentarian” (an in-house staffer who advises congressmen on congressional procedure) had said that was allowed.
“The parliamentarian told me that your motion would actually not be in order,” Gowdy replied. He then said that there would be more about Blumenthal coming: “If you think you’ve heard about Sidney Blumenthal so far, wait ’til the next round. We’re adjourned,” Gowdy said, and the committee broke for lunch.
That ended a three hour-plus first round of questioning, which focused far more on broad questions about Clinton’s judgment than on specific issues related to the Benghazi attacks. Several Republicans noted that Blumenthal had a direct line to Clinton’s e-mail inbox, while Stevens wasn’t able to get his requests for increased security passed to her through official channels.
“I don’t know what this line of questioning does to help us get to the bottom of deaths of four Americans,” Clinton said to Gowdy, before the intra-legislator bickering began. “The sharing of information from an old friend that I did not take at face value, that I sent on to those who are experts, is something that makes sense.”
The questions had turned increasingly sharp in the last hour before the break as a Republican congressmen accused Clinton of misleading the public about the 2012 attacks in order to help President Obama’s reelection prospects.
“You picked the [account] with no evidence. You did it because Libya was supposed to be . . . this great success for the White House,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). He charged that Clinton had blamed the attacks on reaction to an anti-Muslim video, while knowing that was false. “And now you have a terrorist attack. It’s a terrorist attack in Libya. And it’s just 56 days before an election.”
Clinton said she had not intended to mislead, but instead had sought to make sense of confusing intelligence reports from Libya and other places where protesters had overrun American diplomatic installations. After that — prompted by a friendly Democratic congressman — Clinton told the committee that she had felt the loss of four Americans in Benghazi deeply.
“It’s a very personally painful accusation” that she had misled the public, Clinton said. “Having it continued to be bandied around is deeply distressing to me. I would imagine that 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’ve been wracking my brain about what could have been done, or should have been done.”
The exchanges between Clinton and Jordan — following a rapid-fire interrogation by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) — were the most dramatic portion of the hearing’s first round.
After nearly three hours of questioning, Jordan was the first Republican in this hearing to spell out the alternate history of the Benghazi episode that many on the right believe is the correct one. He spoke rapidly, interrupting Clinton at times, and personally accusing her of falsehoods.
“Where did the false narrative start? It started with you, Madam Secretary,” Jordan said. After his questioning period ended, Gowdy gave Clinton a chance to respond.
“I wrote a whole chapter about this in my book, ‘Hard Choices.’ I’d be glad to send it to you,” Clinton said. “I think that the insinuations that you are making do a grave disservice” to those in government.
Another interesting dynamic of the committee’s hearing was the contrast between the tone of Republican members like Pompeo and Jordan — who said that the meaning of Benghazi episode was already known, and it was that Clinton had failed in her job — and the tone of Gowdy, who has staked his credibility on the notion that the commission is a finder of fact, not a partisan tool to undermine Clinton. So while Pompeo and Jordan pressed Clinton to accept their conclusions about the episode, Gowdy insisted it was too early to know what those conclusions should be.
“This is not a prosecution,” Gowdy said, after a Democrat had said it was. “I’ve reached no conclusions.”
Pompeo pressed Clinton about why no one at the State Department had been fired in the aftermath of attacks.
“Why don’t you fire someone?” Pompeo said. “How come no one has been held accountable to date?”
Clinton responded that she had relied on inquiries into the attacks, which found that State Department officials had made mistakes but no misconduct rose to the level of a firing offense. “In the absence of finding dereliction or breach of duty, there could not be immediate action taken,” Clinton said.
“The folks in Kansas don’t think that was accountability,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also asked Clinton a question related to her unusual e-mail arrangement, in which she used a private e-mail account — and a private e-mail server housed at her home in New York — to conduct State Department business. That meant that people with her e-mail address, including longtime friend Blumenthal, could reach her directly. Why, Pompeo asked, had she not been made aware of requests for greater security at U.S. outposts in Libya — passed through official State Department channels — but Blumenthal’s ideas about Libya got to her inbox?
“He’s a friend of mine. He sent me information that he thought might be of interest,” Clinton said of Blumenthal. “He had no official position in the government, and he was not at all my adviser on Libya.”
Pompeo’s questions put Clinton on the defensive for the first time on Thursday, after other Republicans misfired with questions that strayed — in time or in subject matter — from the attacks that were supposed to be the hearing’s focus. It was damaging enough that the next Democratic questioner, Rep. Linda Sanchez (Calif.), played a video clip designed to attack Pompeo himself, in which TV journalist Andrea Mitchell told Pompeo that he was wrong to say Blumenthal was a major adviser for Clinton on Libya.
In its first two hours, the hearing yielded few new details about those Benghazi attacks — or about Clinton’s use of the private e-mail account and server.
Democrats, as expected, used their time to toss Clinton softballs — or to attack the existence of the committee itself. “This committee is simply not doing its job,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told Clinton. “We’ve seen that this committee is focused on you.”
The Republicans focused their inquiries on Clinton’s broader conduct as secretary, rather than on the events of the specific night in September 2012 when four Americans died in separate attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi.
One of the Republicans focused on events that happened long before that, asking Clinton how much she’d done to push the United States to use military action against Libya in the first place.
The other two tried to use e-mails sent by State Department employees to portray Clinton as inattentive to Benghazi and the danger faced by Americans there. But their inquiries did not produce much that was new. Clinton brushed aside one by saying that she didn’t rely on e-mail to conduct business, and the other by saying that she didn’t even know the employees whose e-mails were being quoted.
“They were not on my staff,” Clinton said to Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), after Roby queried her about an e-mail between two State Department officials that indicated Clinton was not aware of a U.S. facility in Benghazi.
The first questions that Clinton faced in the hearing about the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi 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 e-mails 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 Gaddafi. 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 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].”
The second Republican to question Clinton was Rep. Susan Brooks (Ind.), who began her questioning by stacking papers on the dais in front of her — one large stack to represent the large number of e-mails Clinton had received about Libya and Benghazi in 2011 and a smaller stack to represent the same kind of e-mails in 2012.
It seemed, at first, that Brooks might have been implying Clinton had held back some e-mails from 2012 — the year of the attacks — in order to keep the Benghazi committee in the dark. But Brooks did not actually say that. Instead, her questions implied that Clinton may not have been aware of some security concerns in Benghazi in 2012 at all — because the e-mails did not specifically mention them.
That turned out to be a softball for Clinton, not a trap.
She used the moment to say that she did not use e-mail to conduct much of her business as secretary of state, rebutting questions about her use of private e-mail to conduct government business.
“I did not conduct most of the business that I did on behalf of our country on e-mail,” Clinton said. “There were a lot of things that happened that I was aware of and I was reacting to. If you were to be in my office in the State Department, I did not have a computer.”
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.”
The committee’s chairman opened the hearing with a long defense of its right to exist. Gowdy 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 (Calif.), 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 e-mail 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 e-mail arrangement, which meant she took valuable e-mails 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.”
Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, followed Gowdy with his own opening statement — an attack on his own panel’s credibility. Cummings charged that the 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 Benghazi committee discovered that Clinton had used a private e-mail address, and a private e-mail 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 e-mail, whether her e-mails were vulnerable to hackers, and about whether she has turned over all her private e-mails 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 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.
Elise Viebeck and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.