Politics

Hillary Clinton testifies before Benghazi committee (plus, why the stakes are so high)

In 2013, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on Capitol Hill about the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Today she'll testify again.
In 2013, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on Capitol Hill about the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Today she'll testify again.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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The House Select Committee on Benghazi heard testimony from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday. And there's no question superPACs, opposition researchers and presidential campaigns, including Clinton's, were watching closely, parsing every word and facial expression. The exchange turned heated at several times during the questioning, and some facts were twisted in the process. What follows is a recap of the event through a fact check of some of the claims, along with analysis of what was at stake for both sides.

Updates:

Congressional investigations, by definition, are about finding facts. But some facts were twisted Thursday in a showdown between Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Republican questioners over how history — and voters — will remember the deadly 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound and CIA quarters in Benghazi, Libya.

A look at some of the claims in a House hearing where lawmakers quizzed Clinton, secretary of state during the Benghazi episode and now a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate:

CLINTON: "There was a good back and forth about security." — On communications between U.S. personnel in Libya and the State Department in Washington, about security needs at the Benghazi compound before the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

THE FACTS: The independent review Clinton convened after the attacks deeply faulted State Department officials in Washington for poor communication and cooperation as diplomats in Libya pressed for more security and Benghazi grew more dangerous.

The Accountability Review Board cited a "lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at senior bureau levels" and "shortfalls in Washington coordination" contributing to a "woefully insufficient" security force at the compound.

The fewer than half dozen armed diplomatic security personnel at the compound "were not well served by their leadership in Washington," the board said.

Clinton furthermore asserted that personnel in Benghazi were granted many of their requests for security equipment upgrades.

The review board, however, said "Washington showed a tendency to overemphasize the positive impact of physical security upgrades" to a "profoundly weak" system.

At the same time, Washington officials were "generally failing to meet Benghazi's repeated requests" to augment security personnel.

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REP. TREY GOWDY: The Republican committee chairman ridiculed the idea of Stevens "having to stop and provide public messaging advice to your press shop" a week after a bomb blew a hole in the compound's wall, without injuring anyone.

Gowdy referred to a request from the State Department's spokeswoman at the time, Victoria Nuland, who wrote, according to the chairman, "We'd like your advice about public messaging about the spate of violence in Libya over the last 10 days."

THE FACTS: An important part of any ambassador's job is to be the public face of U.S. policy in the host country and to help decide what the U.S. government should say publicly about that country.

State Department spokespeople receive guidance every day from ambassadors, assistant secretaries and other top officials about their areas of expertise, so that they can most accurately present U.S. policy to the public.

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CLINTON: Asked about the dozens of emails she received from longtime political confidant Sidney Blumenthal, many with reports about developments in Libya, Clinton said his advice was "unsolicited."

THE FACTS: Clinton was mischaracterizing some of those exchanges with Blumenthal.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House committee leading the hearing, asked what she meant by saying his advice was unsolicited.

"I did not ask him to send me the information that he sent me."

Noting that Blumenthal had no expertise about Libya, Gowdy read Clinton's emailed responses to some of his reports: "Thanks and please keep them coming" and "Anything else to convey?" and "What are you hearing now?"

At that, Clinton revised her description of how their email exchanges unfolded to "originally unsolicited," saying, "They started out unsolicited, and as I said, some were of interest."

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GOWDY: The chairman defended his lengthy probe by arguing that seven previous congressional investigations "were narrow in scope and either incapable or unwilling to access the facts and evidence necessary to answer all relevant questions."

THE FACTS: What Gowdy didn't mention: Five of those seven investigations were led and controlled by his fellow House Republicans, who were no pushovers. The other two congressional investigations, led by Senate Democrats, produced bipartisan reports.

While each panel investigated matters under its particular jurisdiction, the mandate was still broad, and underlying facts behind the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were explored repeatedly.

That's not to say information that emerged after these investigations has been comprehensively explored. Gowdy noted his panel demanded additional documents and was the first to get Clinton's email — kept on her personal server — and the emails of Stevens.

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CLINTON: "I did not email during the day and — except on rare occasions when I was able to."

THE FACTS: Clinton's use of her private email address and server during working hours was anything but "rare."

Clinton sent about one-third of her emails during working hours — on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. — according to an AP analysis of 2,754 emails she wrote from April 2009 through September 2010, based on time stamps on the messages.

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CLINTON: In her opening statement, she painted her critics as arguing that it's never reasonable to plant diplomats on dangerous ground: "Retreat from the world is not an option. America cannot shrink from our responsibility to lead. ... If you ask our most experienced ambassadors, they'll tell you they can't do their jobs for us from bunkers."

THE FACTS: Republican lawmakers are not arguing that diplomats should never venture into risky conditions to represent the U.S. They cite investigations after the Benghazi attacks that condemned the State Department's decision to keep that post open with poor security despite a growing number of assaults on Western interests in the area.

The accountability board appointed by Clinton as secretary of state said the security in Benghazi was "grossly inadequate to deal with the attack." A bipartisan Senate committee report called keeping the Benghazi mission open under those circumstances "a grievous mistake."

The State Department pulled out of Benghazi immediately after the attack and left Libya altogether in 2014. The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli remains shuttered, the country still considered too unstable and dangerous for a return.

— Associated Press reporter Connie Cass. AP writers Troy Thibodeaux, Ted Bridis and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.

10:36 a.m.: Sparks fly between committee members

The biggest fireworks of the day so far aren't between Clinton and any committee member — Gowdy vs. Cummings got very heated, very quickly. The two are arguing again over Blumenthal — Cummings is insisting that his testimony before the committee be released and says, per a parliamentary maneuver, he can move for it to be done right now; Gowdy disagrees. It's clear that Blumenthal has become the biggest flashpoint — and before Gowdy abruptly breaks he says there will be much more about him during the next round. They weren't even questioning Clinton at the end — and per people in the room on social media, Clinton looked perfectly gleeful that the whole affair had devolved into screaming and mudslinging.

And with that, Gowdy took the hearing into recess for lunch. We'll continue with the questioning soon.

— Jessica Taylor/NPR and KPCC staff

7:14 a.m.: Clinton to testify; why the stakes are so high

Campaign ads will be made based on what is said Thursday in room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building.

That's where the House Select Committee on Benghazi will hear testimony from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — possibly as much as six to eight hours of testimony. And there's no question superPACs, opposition researchers and presidential campaigns, including Clinton's, will be watching closely, parsing every word and facial expression.

Even before the much-anticipated testimony started, the proceedings became a political mud pit. The stakes for this committee aren't high just for Clinton but also for the legitimacy of the committee itself.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy bragged about the committee's work bringing Clinton's poll numbers down, at least in part derailing his candidacy for House speaker. Then, a House GOP back-bencher said a "big part" of the Benghazi investigation was designed to go after Clinton.

That gave Clinton's allies an opening to question the very existence and purpose of the committee and prompted House Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to tell his fellow Republicans to cool it.

"I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends, 'Shut up talking about things that you don't know anything about,' " Gowdy said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "And unless you're on the committee, you have no idea what we've done, why we've done it and what new facts we have found."

In the days leading up to the hearing, the charges and countercharges, the strongly worded letters, fact sheets and selective leaks have been coming so fast and furious, it would be hard for anyone to keep up. All sides are trying to set expectations ahead of what will be the most closely watched hearing the Benghazi committee will hold.

And if past is prologue, the ads with ominous music and unflattering images won't be far behind. Clinton's campaign has already produced an ad based on McCarthy's comments.

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As has Priorities USA, a Clinton-allied superPAC. Its ad started running in heavy rotation on cable TV Wednesday.

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Testimony in 2013 in which Clinton said "What difference does it make?" has appeared (out of context) in countless Web videos and ads.

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While members of the committee can take breaks, drink coffee and slip out to go to the restroom, Clinton will be at the witness table for many hours, on the spot the whole time. This while the FBI is still investigating the handling of sensitive information on the private email server Clinton used for official business while secretary of state.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the committee, said he's confident Clinton will perform well, but she faces risks. She has to be careful not to be too dismissive or get flustered, he said.

"It's very hard, I think, when you're fatigued, and you're the one who's answering all the questions," Schiff told NPR. "Just maintaining that level of alertness without losing your cool is a challenge. So, there are ample opportunities to get tripped up, which I'm sure is what the Republicans are hoping for."

Will anything change as a result of the hearing? It seems unlikely. The terrorist attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, has been politicized almost from the moment it happened, in the height of that year's presidential race. Conspiracy theories abound, as do investigations disproving them.

It's become something of a Rorschach test. For Republicans, Benghazi, it seems, will always be about a Democratic president's failures and his politically ambitious secretary of state. For Democrats, it is nothing but a partisan witch hunt and a waste of resources.

Clinton's private email server, which was revealed as part of the investigation, proves to Republicans that it's just another reason to dislike her, a sign she's playing by different rules and that the committee is doing the right thing.

For Democrats, the private email server is regrettable. But most of them seem to agree with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who said at last week's Democratic debate, "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails. Enough of the emails."

Clinton agreed. She hopes that after Thursday's proceedings, more Americans do, too.

— Tamara Keith/NPR

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