Clinton: U.S. Can't Retreat From Regions In Turmoil

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress about the events surrounding the Sept. 11 consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya. The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in the attack.

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On Capitol Hill today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was both emotional and angry. Testifying before a Senate committee, she spoke passionately about the attack last September that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. She said she's taking seriously the recommendations of her review panel to better protect U.S. diplomats around the world.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Clinton insisted the U.S. can't retreat, especially from a region now in so much turmoil.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Clinton, as she took the death of Chris Stevens personally, she nearly broke down as she spoke about that day she greeted the coffins of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters and the wives left alone to raise their children.

KELEMEN: The hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took more emotional turns as senators pressed her on how much she knew about the dangers in Benghazi before the September 11 attack. Clinton angrily dismissed Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, who complained that the Obama administration initially described the attack as a protest over an anti-Islam video.

SENATOR RON JOHNSON: Again, we were misled that there was supposedly protests and then something spraying out of that - an assault sprang out of that. And that was easily ascertained that was not the fact...

CLINTON: But, you know...

JOHNSON: ...and the American people could have known that within days...


JOHNSON: ...and they didn't know that.

CLINTON: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.

JOHNSON: I understand.

CLINTON: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?

KELEMEN: Senator John McCain, a new member of the Foreign Relations Committee, sounded frustrated with that answer, saying he knew Ambassador Stevens and personally heard his concerns about security in Benghazi. McCain says the Obama administration simply tried to have, as he put it, a light footprint in Libya after Moammar Gadhafi was toppled.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We did not provide the security that was needed. We did not help them with border security. We did not give them the kind of assistance that would have been necessary to help dismantle these militias that still, to this day, remain a challenge to democracy in Libya and freedom.

KELEMEN: No one has been brought to justice for carrying out the attack in Benghazi - a fact many lawmakers pointed out in a long day of hearings. And Clinton says the U.S. is now investigating news from Algeria, that some of people who attacked the mission in Benghazi were also involved in the deadly hostage-taking at a remote gas field in Algeria last week. She says weapons that flowed out of Libya have fueled conflicts across the region, including in northern Mali, were al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has found safe haven.

CLINTON: This Pandora's box, if you will, of weapons coming of these countries in the Middle East and North Africa is the source of one of our biggest threats. There's no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya.

KELEMEN: Her testimony delayed for a month because she was ill in December comes as Hillary Clinton is wrapping up her time as secretary of state. Senator John Kerry's confirmation hearing to replace her is to be held tomorrow, and she seemed to be offering him a bit of advice.

CLINTON: We've come a long way in the past four years, and we cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, our security at home is threatened.

KELEMEN: We are in for a struggle, she warns, but it's a necessary one to counter al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and give new democracies in the region a chance.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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