Hillary Clinton defended herself against sharp Republican questioning about whether the State Department provided sufficient security to diplomats in Benghazi, Libya before a 2012 terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador, in a hearing that may mark a turning point in her campaign.
The Benghazi committee’s inquiry on Thursday features Clinton, the former secretary of state who is the frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, as the sole witness. House aides said that her interrogation may stretch into the late afternoon.
Clinton and her allies expect the hearing to be a highlight for her campaign, which already got a boost Wednesday when Vice President Joe Biden announced that he wouldn’t compete against her for the Democratic nomination. She invoked the memory of slain U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens to defend her approach to diplomacy, saying they shared a common philosophy on the need for American leadership even in the most troubled parts of the world.
"I was the one who asked Chris to go to Libya as our envoy," Clinton said. "I was the one who recommended him to be our ambassador to Libya. After the attacks I stood next to President Obama as Marines carried his casket and those of the other three Americans off the plane at Andrews Air Force Base. I took responsibility."
Clinton came prepared with a thick binder of notes that she placed in front of her on the witness table and a coterie of aides. She showed no sign of being rattled as Republicans questioned her on topics ranging from the events in Benghazi to her e-mail correspondence with a friend and informal adviser, Sidney Blumenthal.
Clinton was not invited to speak until 27 minutes after the hearing began, after the committee’s top Republican and Democrat exchanged political barbs. She initially focused on acknowledging the work of Stevens and other Americans killed in the attacks. Stevens was an extraordinary diplomat, she said, who spirited himself into Libya on board a Greek cargo ship as a revolution broke out against the country’s former dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.
"We owe them, and each other, the truth," Republican Trey Gowdy, the panel’s chairman, said of the families of those killed in Benghazi. "The truth about why we were in Libya. The truth about what we were doing in Libya. The truth about what led to the attacks and the truth about what our government told the American people after the attacks."
Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina and chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, arrives to a hearing where Hillary Clinton would testify in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015.
Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina and chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, arrives to a hearing where Hillary Clinton would testify in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Political Theater

Clinton said that after the attacks she "launched reforms to better protect our people in the field and reduce the chance of another tragedy." The Republican-led Congress, she said, has delayed acting on a State Department review board’s recommendations to improve security for U.S. diplomats.
From the outset, the hearing featured moments of political theater. Clinton used her testimony to demonstrate her extensive experience in diplomacy and foreign affairs, polishing her presidential credentials.
"I have been in a number of Situation Room discussions," she said at one point.
Representative Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican, meanwhile dramatically interrupted his own question to give Clinton "an opportunity" to read notes passed to her by her aides.
"I can do more than one thing at a time," Clinton retorted.
Susan Brooks, an Indiana Republican, sought to portray Clinton as distracted when Stevens was in Libya. She plopped two large piles of documents in front of her on the hearing room’s dais. One pile, she said, was copies of 795 e-mails Clinton sent or received regarding Libya in 2011. The other pile was just 67 Libya e-mails from 2012, she said.
"I can only conclude by your own record that there was a lack of interest in 2012," she said.
"I did not conduct most of the business I did on behalf of our country on e-mail," Clinton responded, saying she did much of her work by phone and in-person meetings. She joked that there were probably a lot of emails from Blumenthal in the larger pile.
"We’ll get there," Brooks said.
Representative Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, questions Hillary Clinton during a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015.
Representative Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, questions Hillary Clinton during a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

’Special Friend’

Clinton seemed to go out of her way to be friendly to hostile inquisitors, including Martha Roby, a 39-year-old third-term Republican from Alabama who appeared nervous as she asked a question. "I get what you’re saying, congresswoman," Clinton said, before launching into an explanation of plans for diplomatic facilities in Libya.
Before Roby could even finish her exchange with Clinton, a Super-PAC supporting Clinton, Correct the Record, issued a more than 1,100-word e-mail undercutting her line of questioning.
QuickTake Benghazi
Later, Representative Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, revisited Blumenthal’s correspondence. He said that officials in Libya had made more than 600 requests for additional security before the Benghazi attacks, none of which were personally reviewed by Clinton. Meanwhile, Blumenthal "wrote you over 150 emails," Pompeo said to her. "All of those reached your desk."
"He’s a friend of mine," Clinton said. "He sent me information he thought would be of interest. Some of it was, some of it wasn’t. He had no official position in the government and he was not at all an adviser on Libya."
"That’s a special friend," Pompeo said.
Clinton said repeatedly that it was the job of the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security to evaluate security requests and balance them with budget constraints, not the job of the secretary.
Pompeo also asked why Clinton fired no one after the attacks. State Department investigators, she said, "could not find a breach of duty."
"Folks in Kansas do not think that was accountability," Pompeo said.

Perplexing Exchanges

At times the exchanges were perplexing. At one point, Pompeo asked if Clinton was aware that State Department officials had met about security in Benghazi with a man named Wassam Bin-Hamid just two days before the attack. Bin-Hamid was previously linked to al-Qaeda, he said.
Clinton said she didn’t know what he was talking about and asked Pompeo if he knew who in the department had met with Bin-Hamid. Pompeo couldn’t say, and discontinued his questioning.
Republicans attempted to contrast Blumenthal’s ready access to Clinton with Stevens’ distance. The White House had blocked Blumenthal from accepting a State Department job, according to testimony to the Benghazi committee by Cheryl Mills, a top aide to Clinton at the department. Representative Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican, asked whether Stevens had Clinton’s personal e-mail address.
"I do not believe that he had my personal e-mail," she answered.
In one of the testier exchanges, Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, sparred with Clinton over the genesis of the attack and her actions immediately afterward. Clinton said that a man arrested as one of the ring leaders of the attack said he had been motivated, in part, by an inflammatory anti-Islamic film, "Innocence of Muslims," uploaded to YouTube in July 2012.
"I’m sorry that doesn’t fit your narrative, congressman," she said. "I can only tell you what the facts were."
Gowdy returned to Blumenthal, reading excerpts from his e-mails in which he insulted Obama and his advisers. Gowdy called him Clinton’s "most prolific e-mailer" and asked whether she knew the sources for Blumenthal’s information about Libya.
"I did learn later that he was talking to or sharing information from former American intelligence officials," she said.
"By the name of?" Gowdy asked.
Clinton said she didn’t know.
During a break after about three hours of questioning, Gowdy and Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, argued loudly, while seated about a foot from each other, over whether the investigation was politically motivated.
Cummings told reporters afterward: "I’m not here to defend Hillary Clinton. I’m here to defend the truth."

Washington Luminaries

Clinton entered the packed hearing room shortly before the inquiry began, accompanied by Mills, her lawyer David Kendall and Jake Sullivan, a top aide at her campaign who also worked with her at the State Department. She greeted members of the committee from both parties, shaking many of their hands.
Cheryl Mills, former State Department chief of staff under Hillary Clinton, attends a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015.
Cheryl Mills, former State Department chief of staff under Hillary Clinton, attends a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
The hearing attracted an unusual assortment of Washington luminaries, including New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Republican pollster Frank Luntz and Tom Davis, a former Republican representative from Virginia. Democrats on the committee have threatened to discontinue participating in the investigation after today’s hearing, but the party made a show of force for Clinton’s appearance.
Several Democratic members of Congress who aren’t on the committee sat in the audience, including Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, Joseph Crowley of New York, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and John Lewis of Georgia. The civil rights icon arrived late and had trouble finding a seat. Republicans Louis Gohmert of Texas and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee also watched from the audience.
House Republicans created Gowdy’s Benghazi committee in May 2014 expressly to investigate the attacks. Seven other congressional committees have previously investigated the incident, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans including Stevens. House Democrats have accused Gowdy’s panel of targeting Clinton in the hopes of hurting her chances at the presidency, and have noted that the committee’s work has cost millions of dollars and lasted longer than the investigation of Watergate.
"Previous investigations were not thorough," Gowdy said in defending his committee’s work.
Two Republican lawmakers, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Representative Richard Hanna of New York, have fueled Democratic skepticism about Gowdy’s committee. McCarthy publicly boasted that the investigation has hurt Clinton’s poll numbers, while Hanna said the probe was designed to target Clinton.
Priorities USA, a super-PAC supporting Clinton’s candidacy, on Tuesday released its first television ad, which cited the McCarthy remarks and accused Republicans of using taxpayer money to undermine Clinton’s campaign.
Correct the Record blast e-mailed its first release to reporters less than 15 minutes after Clinton started speaking, elaborating on her charge that Congress is holding up funding for a training facility for diplomatic security and foreign service personnel. Meanwhile, her social media staff tweeted out excerpts of her speech, while the committee’s Democratic staff began e-mailing reporters "fact-checks" on statements made by the panel Republicans.

High Road

Clinton, meanwhile, took the high road in her remarks. The best way to honor the legacy of the four Americans who died in Benghazi, she contended, is to ensure that the U.S. government does all it can to protect its diplomatic corps, even in regions where there’s no American military presence.
"America must lead in a dangerous world, and our diplomats must continue representing us in dangerous places," Clinton said. U.S. diplomats cannot represent the nation from a "bunker," she said.
Politicians back home, she said, should "rise above partisanship and reach for statesmanship."
Shortly before noon, the Republican National Committee joined the outside effort to spin the hearing’s exchanges, firing off an e-mail accusing Clinton of "falsely" blaming budget shortfalls for security lapses in Benghazi.
Democrats contend that much of the committee’s work has focused on probing Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server for official business while secretary of state. Revelations about her server emerged as a result of Gowdy’s investigation, and the resulting controversy has weighed on her bid for the Democratic nomination.
"You had an unusual e-mail arrangement," Gowdy said to Clinton in his statement opening the hearing, blaming the delay in accessing Clinton’s communications for his decision not to call her to testify earlier. "When you left the State Department, you kept the public record to yourself for two years."
Thursday’s hearing was more than a year in the making, as Gowdy’s staff grappled with Clinton’s lawyers over the terms of her appearance. Clinton’s team insisted on a single public hearing, instead of private interviews, and Gowdy agreed in late July.