WASHINGTON — Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton vigorously defended her record Thursday before the special House panel investigating the 2012 fatal attacks on Americans in Libya, rejecting Republican accusations that she neglected a deteriorating security situation and then mischaracterized the nature of the violence.
The 11-hour Thursday hearing, while not breaking any factual ground, gave Republicans on the committee their first chance to grill the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination about what happened at the US mission complex in Benghazi, the biggest State Department tragedy to occur on her watch. The attack left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Clinton remained unruffled throughout the day and night and did not appear to suffer any new political damage. Democrats on the Benghazi committee portrayed the panel's work as a partisan exercise, noting that seven other congressional committees have already investigated the attacks and more than $4 million in taxpayer funds has been spent on the current probe. They lobbed softball questions for Clinton, allowing her to dwell on her anguish over the fates of the Americans who died and defend the work of State Department security staff.
"I would imagine I've thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I've lost more sleep than all of you put together,'' she said. "I have been wracking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done.''
While saying she was aware of dangers faced by the diplomats before the attacks by Libyan militants, Clinton added, "No one ever came to me and said we should shut down our compound in Benghazi," Clinton said.
She acknowledged that Stevens had requested additional security. Clinton, as she has in the past, said that she relied on the recommendations of security professionals in the State Department to assess safety of US diplomats and support staff.
The Benghazi committee has yet to produce findings 17 months after its formation. Its most significant discovery has been Clinton's practice of almost exclusively using a private e-mail account for her official correspondence as secretary of state, a revelation that put Clinton on the defensive for months.
But more recently, the number-two Republican in the House, majority leader Kevin McCarthy, pointed to Clinton's slumping poll numbers as an accomplishment of the committee.
A distinctly partisan atmosphere dominated the hearing room when Clinton arrived for her highly anticipated appearance. She came across as confident and calm, answering lengthy questions. The hearing room was packed, with even some members of Congress having trouble finding seats. When procedural squabbling between the chairman, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, and the ranking member, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, engulfed the proceedings, Clinton sat back and smiled, nodding her head.
Some of the most pointed questions came from Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who pressed Clinton on why she mentioned, in an initial statement after the attacks, a controversial video that disrespected the Prophet Mohammed.
The video had sparked angry demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere at the same time, and there were confusing reports in the media about whether the Benghazi violence also began as a demonstration.
Clinton said she and other State Department officials were reacting to a stream of shifting intelligence reports in the first hours after the Benghazi compound was overrun. That is why a reference about the offensive video crept into her initial account.
"I'm sorry that it doesn't fit your narrative, congressman," Clinton said.
Jordan disputed that account.
"There was not conflicting information the day of the attack," said Jordan, who pointed out that Clinton's press secretary specifically told her that, if pressed, she should be sure not to connect the attacks to the video. "It was clear. You're the ones who muddied it up."
Jordan said the video theory was floated because it was a better narrative politically than the truth: that the Benghazi outpost had been the subject of a planned terrorist attack, undercutting the work that the administration had been doing there.
"It's just 56 days before an election,'' Jordan said. "You can live with a protest about a video. That won't hurt you. But a terrorist attack will. So you can't be square with the American people.''
Clinton shot back: "I think the insinuations that you are making do a grave disservice to the hard work that people in the State Department, the intelligence community, the Defense Department, the White House did during the course of some very confusing and difficult days.''
Many of the questions appeared designed for a television audience rather than fact-finding. Representative Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, presented two stacks of Clinton's unclassified e-mails that referenced Libya, one from 2011 and the other from 2012. The 2011 pile was much larger even though security in the country degraded in 2012 — and the congresswoman said that Clinton wasn't paying close attention to the country as it became more dangerous.
Clinton sought to close down the argument: "I didn't conduct most of the business by e-mail," Clinton said. She said that she didn't even have a computer in her State Department office.
The former secretary of state used the opening portion of her appearance to lay out a broad vision for how American force should be used.
"America must lead in a dangerous world," she said. "Our diplomats must continue representing us in dangerous places."
In contrast to her statements on the campaign trail, Clinton talked about how closely she has worked with Republicans in the past and made an appeal for bipartisan cooperation, particularly on foreign affairs.
Her opening tone differed markedly from the somewhat defensive opening statement of Gowdy, the panel's chairman, who has been under attack for conducting a lengthy probe that even his Republican colleagues have called political.
Gowdy spent much of his time questioning why Clinton received e-mails from a friend and political ally, Sid Blumenthal, about Libya but did not receive e-mails about requests from Stevens and others in Libya for more security.
Clinton said personnel in Libya routed their requests for additional security to the State Department's security experts, not her.