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High-stakes showdown between Clinton and Benghazi panel ends in a draw

Presidential hopeful remains composed during 11-hour grilling, while Benghazi panel seeks to re-establish credibility

The high-stakes showdown between Hillary Clinton and congressional Republicans investigating the deadly 2012 attack on a State Department compound in Benghazi, Libya, appeared to end in a draw Thursday evening, after 11 grueling hours of questioning and testimony. 

Clinton maintained her composure during the marathon grilling from GOP members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, defending her actions as secretary of state leading up to and in response to the attack. Clinton, the 2016 Democratic front-runner, turned the tables on her inquisitors, beseeching them to "rise above partisanship."   

“We should debate on basis of fact, not fear,” she said.

Meanwhile, the GOP-majority committee, accused in recent weeks of engaging in a partisan ploy to sink Clinton's presidential ambitions, sought to re-establish its credibility as an investigative body, largely focusing on why the security needs of the compound in Benghazi were not met, despite repeated requests from Ambassador Chris Stevens, one of the four Americans killed in the attack. 

Despite their best efforts, nonetheless, members did not appear able to uncover any new information during the course of the proceedings, instead retreading ground covered in prior inquiries, albeit in excruciating detail. 

"Who else was at your home, were you alone?" Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala. asked Clinton at one point, referring to the night of the attack. 

"Yes, I was alone," Clinton answered.

"The whole night?" Roby followed-up, eliciting a hearty laugh from Clinton. “I'm sorry, a little note of levity at 7:15," she said. 

There were few explicit criticisms of Clinton's use of a private server for her email, a fact uncovered during the committee's investigation. Nevertheless, Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., emphasized that the recovered messages were critical to completing the public record about the attack. Their contents were repeatedly referred to during the hearing.

“Madam Secretary, I understand some people — frankly, in both parties — have suggested this investigation is about you. Let me assure you, it is not,” Gowdy said. “This work is about something much more important than any single person. This investigation is about four people who were killed representing our country on foreign soil.” 

Clinton struck a somber tone in her testimony, saying she decided to appear before the committee to honor the memory of the four American victims of the attack but noting that risk is inherent in diplomacy. 

“America must lead in a dangerous world, and our diplomats must continue representing us in dangerous places,” she said. “We will never prevent every act of terrorism or achieve perfect security.”

Reflecting later on the lessons she learned from the tragedy, Clinton said, “I have lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been racking my brain about what could have been done.”

Clinton walked a delicate tightrope in her answers about why the compound in Benghazi was not better protected or given more resources, saying that although she had been well apprised of the increasingly unstable situation in Libya, she had left specific security assessments to experts.  

Clinton said she believed it would have been inappropriate to “substitute my judgment from thousands of miles away for the judgment of security professionals on the ground.”

“I made it abundantly clear that we had to do everything to protect our people,” she said.

Some of the most heated exchanges between Republican panel members and Clinton centered on emails she received from Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime family friend and informal adviser. Her released emails showed that the two communicated frequently, with Blumenthal passing on advice, analysis and intelligence on a wide variety of subjects, including information on Libya.

Several GOP lawmakers expressed their dismay that Blumenthal had direct access to Clinton while Stevens did not and was left to navigate the State Department's bureaucracy when seeking additional security and equipment.

“Help us understand how Sidney Blumenthal had that kind of access to you, Madam Secretary, but the ambassador did not,” Gowdy said. 

“You didn’t need my email address to get my attention,” Clinton answered, repeatedly saying that Blumenthal was a friend but not a formal or principal adviser. 

Other lawmakers criticized her for her hand in shaping policy in Libya, emphasizing that her advocacy for U.S. intervention failed to stabilize the region. 

“Our Libya policy couldn’t have happened without you,” said Rep. Pete Roskam, R-Ill. “After your plan, things in Libya today are a disaster.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee, who has become increasingly critical of his GOP colleagues, repeated charges that Republicans were on a political witch hunt, noting that other, bipartisan investigations centered on Benghazi cleared Clinton of any criminal wrongdoing.

“What is impossible is for any reasonable person to continue denying that Republicans are squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on this abusive effort to derail Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign,” he said. 

The perception that the committee’s work, at a cost of $4.5 million, has become overtly political has been fueled by comments from Republican lawmakers.

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., then a candidate for speaker of the House, told Fox News in late September. “What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.”

Many Americans don’t have an opinion about Clinton’s handling of the investigation, according to a new Associated Press/GFK poll. Four in 10 people surveyed said they neither approve nor disapprove of how she has answered questions about the attack, 20 percent approve, and 37 percent disapprove.

Americans are also divided on Clinton's emails. More than half those polled view her use of a private server as a minor problem or no problem at all, compared with 1 in 3 who think it is a major problem. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans call it a major problem.

With The Associated Press

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