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Clinton's Heated Exchange

Emotional Display At Senate Benghazi Hearings


Clinton's Heated Exchange

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to testify before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee about the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Updated January 27, 2013

The exchange is already classic -- tweeted, linked, and re-posted -- and with good reason. In a city known for double-talk and reasoned evasion, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid it on the line January 23 when she testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs about the September 11, 2012, terrorist attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

In what was one of the last acts of her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton delivered a fiery, emotional retort to one senator's line of questioning. (Expect it to surface again if Clinton should run for president in 2016.)


U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other foreign service personnel died in the attack. At first, U.S. government officials, including Clinton and President Barack Obama, reported that the violence stemmed from spontaneous anti-American riots across the Middle East protesting an American-made, anti-Islamic video. Later, evidence indicated that the attack had been premeditated and simply used the riots as cover.

Republicans have hounded Obama and the State Department for promulgating a cover-up of the affair, especially during the 2012 presidential race. They also vilified American U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who appeared on Sunday-morning talk shows repeating the video-thesis of the violence. Rice, who had been a contender to replace Clinton as secretary of state, withdrew her name from consideration in December 2012 because of the political flak.

The Hearing Clash

Clinton was due to testify before the Congressional committees weeks earlier, but a stomach virus -- then a concussion she suffered after passing out due to dehydration -- forced Clinton to postpone her testimony. Even after a rest, Clinton looked tired when she testified.

Clinton was obviously perturbed when Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, continued to press the question about why early reports of the attack had been incorrect.

"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," Clinton said, raising her voice and gesturing in a rare display of emotion. "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."

After cooling down, Clinton, while not apologetic, said "Honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is people were trying their best in real time to get to the best information."

Johnson later accused Clinton of being overly dramatic to avoid answering the question. He did, however, later apologize.

Clinton's Emotional Intro

In her introductory comments at the hearing, Clinton said that violence and upheaval in the Middle East and North African in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring was the reason the U.S. needs to stay active in diplomacy in Arab regions. "When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root; our interests suffer; our security at home is threatened," Clinton said.

Then, in a poignant moment, Clinton said, "That's why I sent Chris Stevens to Benghazi in the first place. Nobody knew the dangers better than Chris, first during the revolution, then during the transition. A weak Libyan Government, marauding militias, terrorist groups; a bomb exploded in the parking lot of his hotel, but he did not waver. Because he understood it was critical for America to be represented there at that time."

Embassies and Consulates

As ambassador, Stevens was based at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. On September 11, however, he had traveled to Benghazi consulate building in eastern Libya. Embassies are the largest physical representatives of the United States in foreign countries. Usually located in a nation's capital, they house the offices of the U.S. Ambassador to that country, plus his support staff. They are the United States' permanent missions to other countries with which the U.S. has normal diplomatic relations.

Ambassadors are the United States' chief spokesperson in a given country. The president appoints the ambassador, and the Senate must confirm him or her.

A consulate is a smaller version of the embassy. The chief officer at the facility is the consul, although it falls under the organizational jurisdiction of the embassy. The U.S. may have several consulates in a country, depending on the country's size. Consulates are generally in significant tourist cities where Americans may need help with visas or other issues.

For a larger discussion of embassies and consulates, check here.

Clinton's Last Act

As mentioned, the dramatic exchange at the Senate hearing was one of Clinton's last acts as secretary of state. She said more than a year ago that, should Obama win re-election, she did not want to continue as secretary.

When Susan Rice withdrew from consideration, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry became the front-runner for the job. He long chaired the Senate committee that grilled Clinton. Obama nominated Kerry in December. At this writing, the Senate was deliberating his confirmation.

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