WASHINGTON (CNN) — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton mounted a passionate defense of her response to the Benghazi attacks at a congressional hearing Thursday, telling the Republicans arrayed against her that she had lost more sleep over the deaths of four Americans in Libya than anyone else on the panel.
Clinton said it was “very personally painful” to hear accusations that she did not do everything she could as secretary of state to protect her friend, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was among those who died in the attack on September 11, 2012.
“I would imagine I have thought more about what happened than all of you put together,” she said. “I have lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been wracking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done.”
She appeared to skate through the beginning of what could be a grueling eight-hour cross examination without a serious blow, but as the hearing wore on, the tenor became increasingly contentious. She came under intense questioning from several GOP members as they accused her of ignoring requests for more security from Stevens and of trying to mislead Americans on the true nature of an attack on U.S. facility.
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio submitted Clinton to the most dramatic period of questioning, alleging she and other Obama administration staff tried to blame the attack on the consulate on an anti-Muslim YouTube video to avoid undercutting President Barack Obama’s claims that he had crushed Al-Qaeda.
“You could live with a protest about a video, that won’t hurt you, but a terror attack would,” Jordan said, saying that Americans could accept, reluctantly, compatriots being killed abroad but “what they can’t live with is when their government is not square with them.”
Clinton rejected the claim, saying in the desperate hours after the attack on September 11, 2012, that information on the true nature of the assault on the compound by a mob was unclear.
“I am sorry that it doesn’t fit your narrative congressman, I can only tell you what the facts are.”
The heated exchanges highlighted that the hearing is not only limited to an examination of Clinton’s record on Benghazi but also the extent to which partisanship has shaped the investigation, with the Democratic candidates’ allies repeatedly charging the GOP with politically motivated maneuvers.
In her opening statements, Clinton made a veiled reference to her campaign’s contention that the Benghazi Select Committee is a sideshow meant to damage her politically, she added, “We need leadership at home to match our leadership abroad, leadership that puts national security ahead of politics and ideology.”
But the top Republican on the House Select Committee, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, denied the hearing was a nakedly partisan exercise designed to derail Clinton’s campaign for the 2016 election — even as her top ally on the panel hit back at that assertion.
Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings claimed the probe had wasted 17 months and $4.7 million on a partisan fishing expedition that had turned up no new evidence on the attack, which occurred when she was secretary of state.
The committee is probing the events before, during and after an assault on U.S. diplomatic and CIA compounds in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, that ignited a furious political controversy that has now spanned two presidential elections.
Clinton, reading slowly from notes, somberly paid tribute to the four Americans killed: U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, information management officer Sean Smith and CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
“I am here to honor the service of those four men, the courage of the diplomatic security agencies and the CIA officers who risked their lives that night, and the work their colleagues do every single day all over the world,” Clinton said.
Striking a somber tone, Clinton said that losing any member of her staff was “deeply painful” for the entire State Department as well as her personally, and recalled how she had asked Stevens to go to Libya in the first place, then stood at Andrews Air Force base as his flag-draped casket was brought home from Libya.
Clinton noted that an independent Accountability Review Board that she set up as secretary had pulled no punches, unveiling 29 recommendations for improving security for U.S. diplomats overseas. She also noted that previous attacks on Americans abroad, including in 1983 on a U.S. Marines barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, had produced changes to U.S. security procedures after nonpartisan investigations by Congress.
She said that while she and Stevens knew that Benghazi was dangerous for Americans — like many other areas of the world — there had been no actionable threat received by U.S. intelligence agencies against the State Department facility, even on the morning of the attack.
“No one ever came to me and said we should shut down our compound in Benghazi,” she said.
She largely stayed away from political rhetoric, but towards the end of her opening remarks, her voice seemed to catch briefly as she spoke about how proud she had been to represent America abroad as secretary of state.
In his opening statement, Republican Committee Chairman Gowdy also praised the four Americans who died in the Benghazi attacks. He called them heroes who had “believed in service and sacrifice” and promised justice for their families and the truth about what happened.
He also implicitly rejected claims by the Clinton campaign that the hearing was primarily a partisan activity, saying that unlike seven other congressional probes on the topic, it had established new parameters for the investigation and unearthed new troves of evidence.
“I understand there are people, frankly, in both parties that have suggested that this investigation is about you,” Gowdy told Clinton.
“Let me assure you that it is not and let me assure you why it is not. This investigation is about four people who were killed representing our country on foreign soil. It is about what happened before, during and after the attacks that killed them.”
But one Republican congressman, Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, did appear interested in getting under her skin, saying he was willing to pause his questioning to allow her to read notes handed to her by her staff, though Clinton laughed off the suggestion.
Gowdy pledged to investigate what exactly the United States was doing in Libya at the time of the attacks, why military assets were not available to deploy to save the Americans under threat and to examine the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis and the aftermath.
He said new evidence included a fresh batch of 1,300 emails from Stevens and 1,500 from Clinton that his panel was the first to investigate. He also complained that the investigation had been delayed because Clinton had used a private email account as secretary of state, which the committee only discovered in March.
But Cummings, of Maryland, charged that the Republicans had formed the committee simply to “derail” her presidential campaign, and said some of the allegations leveled against her were “outlandish and inaccurate.”
He also denounced Republican presidential candidates for statements on Benghazi which he said proved the GOP was trying to hijack the Benghazi tragedy as a 2016 issue.
“Carly Fiorina has said Secretary Clinton has blood on her hands. Mike Huckabee accused her of ignoring the warning calls from dying Americans in Benghazi. Sen. Paul says Benghazi was a 3 a.m. phone call that she never picked up. And Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted ‘Where the hell were you the night of the Benghazi attack?’ Everyone on this panel knows these accusations are baseless,” Cummings said.