WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pre-election bid to shoulder blame over the deadly terror attack in Libya failed to silence GOP criticism that President Barack Obama is not protecting U.S. diplomats overseas.
Her written statement was sure to re-emerge as a prominent issue in Tuesday’s second debate between Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney. And it could have long-term ramifications given the persistent speculation that Clinton might run for president in four years’ time or stay in public life.
In her statement, Clinton accepted responsibility for the safety of the State Department’s staff and diplomatic missions. It was quickly brushed aside by leading Republicans.
By becoming the first top administration official to assume blame for the attack last month on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, she sought to take the heat off Obama for the worst debacle at a U.S. embassy or consulate overseas in more than a decade.
But her message left several lingering questions unanswered, such as whether the attack on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 occurred because of intelligence failures and why administration officials insisted for days afterward that the violence stemmed from protests against an American-made video ridiculing Islam.
“I take responsibility,” Clinton said, reiterating comments she made in a television interview late Monday. “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world (at) 275 posts.”
Clinton’s remarks may have been intentionally vague. Neither in her interviews or her statement does she spell out what exactly she assumes responsibility for, a tactic that may have been employed to avoid culpability for specific failings or tasks strictly outside her control.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton “was extremely clear what she takes responsibility for, which is the operation of this department, all of the men and women here.”
But that assessment offered nothing definitive about intelligence that may have been used to make security decisions before the attack or the administration’s initial accounting of the incident as the byproduct of angry protests. The administration since has referred to a well-coordinated terrorist attack.
The intelligence may have come from the CIA or other agencies beyond Clinton’s reach; the post-attack messaging likely would have been coordinated by the administration as a whole — especially after Romney attacked an independent statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on the day of the Libya attack.
The Benghazi attack has turned deeply political even within the State Department, with Clinton turning message management over to one of her most trusted aides, Philippe Reines.
Reines, a veteran of Clinton’s Senate days and presidential campaign, set up a separate crisis management team that has operated, largely in secrecy, from an office on the ground floor of the department’s headquarters. It has focused on preparations for last week’s congressional hearing and the department’s internal investigation.
Clinton, meanwhile, has been largely shielded from the Benghazi fallout. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was tasked five days after the attack with presenting it as a protest gone awry, and Clinton conspicuously avoided questioning as that account unraveled.
Even in Clinton’s own department, officials have been left in the dark by some of the maneuvering. Some say privately that they see Clinton’s gesture less as a case of her falling on her sword for the administration, but presenting herself as the statesman who has accepted her part in any failure. By doing so, they said, she is winning praise from some Republicans and taking herself out of the blame game she said in her statement that she wanted to avoid.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested a more muddied picture, noting that “there are many people that believe that Secretary Clinton may have further political ambitions and this could obviously harm that in one way, but also bring in some additional support, possibly from President Obama who can’t run again.”
With three weeks before the presidential election, the administration has been unable to put to rest its handling of the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, a State Department computer specialist and two former Navy SEALs who were working as contract security guards.
Obama has consistently trumped Romney in polls on foreign policy questions with his frequent reminders to voters that he ended one war in Iraq and was ending another in Afghanistan, and that Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch. But the Benghazi attack has allowed Republicans to widen their criticism of the president, which primarily had been focused on his record on creating jobs and cutting into America’s $16 trillion debt.
Outrage has spiked since Vice President Joe Biden’s comment in last week’s debate with Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, that “we weren’t told” about requests for extra security at the consulate — just a day after State Department officials told Congress they were aware of, and rejected, several such requests.
Spokesmen for both the State Department and the White House took pains to make clear that Biden’s “we” referred to the White House, where such security requests would not go. Clinton backed up Biden’s assertion. “The president and the vice president certainly wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals,” she said.
Clinton would not answer questions on her statement during a visit Tuesday to Lima, Peru, and Obama ignored reporters asking about the secretary’s comments as he left Williamsburg, Va., for the debate later Tuesday in New York.
Romney had no immediate reaction, spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said, but pointedly noted that she “expected” the issue to come up again during the debate.
Republican senators sought to shine the spotlight back on Obama, crediting Clinton for “a laudable gesture,” while insisting that responsibility for the Benghazi attack lies squarely on the president.
“I think it’s very laudable that she should throw herself under the bus,” McCain told Fox News on Tuesday. “But first of all, responsibility for American security doesn’t lie with the secretary of state. It lies with the president of the United States.
“It’s either willful deception or a degree of incompetence and failure to understand fundamental facts on the ground,” said McCain, the losing candidate in the 2008 presidential election.
Clinton rejected that the post-attack explanations were intentionally misleading, and sought to carve out a position for herself above the political fray.
“Everyone who spoke tried to give the information they had,” she said. “As time has gone on, the information has changed, we’ve gotten more detail. But that’s not surprising. That always happens. And what I want to avoid is some kind of political ‘gotcha’ or blame game going on.”
“I know that we’re very close to an election,” she added. “I want just to take a step back here and say from my own experience we are at our best as Americans when we pull together.”