Hillary Clinton Offers Mea Culpa In Libya Attack

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken responsibility for security lapses at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack last month.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with a topic that is likely to come up at tonight's presidential debate: the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11. Republicans have been blasting the Obama administration, saying it has changed its story about what happened on the night that four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed.

And Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have also claimed the attack showed the administration did not properly protect its diplomats. Well, now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has given a series of television interviews, issuing a mea culpa of sorts. Here she is speaking yesterday on CNN.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: I take responsibility. I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president certainly wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.

SIEGEL: Well, joining us now to talk about Secretary Clinton's role in this is our diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen. Hi.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi.

SIEGEL: Did Hillary Clinton's comments clear the White House of some responsibility here?

KELEMEN: In part perhaps. I mean, remember, there are two lines of attacks coming from the Republicans. One is that the administration downplayed the terrorist threat in Libya and instead kept talking about how this attack grew out of a protest against an anti-Islam video.

The other line of attack came out of a House hearing last week, and that is that security officials on the ground in Libya were asking Washington to maintain extra guards there, but were told don't even bother asking. It won't happen. That was happening in the months leading up to the September 11 attack.

So what Clinton was doing in this whole slew of TV interviews was saying ultimately she's responsible for the safety of diplomats. She was also protecting the White House by saying it's security personnel in the department making these decisions. The requests go to them, not to the White House. And remember, Robert, that Vice President Biden, in his debate with Paul Ryan just last week said, we didn't know about these requests. So she was shielding him.

SIEGEL: But as you said, there's still the question of the administration initially saying that the attack grew out of a protest against an anti-Islam video, and who knew what when. What is Secretary Clinton saying about that now?

KELEMEN: Basically, what she said is in line with what other administration officials have been saying in recent weeks, that there were various intelligence reports at the beginning, that this picture evolved and the intelligence assessment changed. Let's listen to how she explained it in particular to a Fox News reporter.

CLINTON: The fog of war, the confusion that you get in any kind of combat situation - remember, this was an attack that went on for hours. You know, our post was overrun by a significant number of armed men. Our annex was attacked. There had to be a lot of sorting out.

SIEGEL: The fog of war, sorting out. So she's saying the responsibility really here is with the intelligence people who didn't analyze very quickly what happened.

KELEMEN: Basically, the intelligence community. And, by the way, there were also reporters who were saying that there were protests initially. And there were also a lot of violent protests at other U.S. embassies in the region at this time.

But the problem with all of this, Robert, is that we now know from a top State Department official that security agents in Benghazi didn't see a protest that night. This official, who spoke to us on background last week, said that it was quiet that day. And security guards at the consulate heard explosions and gunfire outside the consulate at 9:40 at night, looked at the security cameras and saw armed men coming over, breaching the compound. And they did not see a protest out there.

The other problem with blaming this all on the intelligence community is that the intelligence folks don't write the White House talking points. And days after this attack, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was on all of the Sunday morning talk shows, repeating the White House talking points that they believe that this was a protest gone awry.

SIEGEL: Republicans do not seem to be backing down from this line of attack on the Obama administration's foreign policy. What are they saying about Clinton's effort to take the blame?

KELEMEN: Well, Senator John McCain and two others today issued a statement calling it a laudable gesture. But they also went on to say that, you know, there was a pattern of attacks in Benghazi leading up to the events that night. If the president was truly not aware of this rising threat level, they said, quote, "We have lost confidence in his national security team. If he was aware, he bears responsibility for security failure." So I think we're going to hear Republicans still hammering home on this issue.

SIEGEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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