Transcript: Clinton’s responses to Sen. James Risch’s questions on the Tunisian suspect arrested in connection with the Benghazi attack but later released & Susan Rice’s statements

Transcribed and edited by Jenny Jiang

Partial transcript of Q&A between Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was held on Jan. 23, 2013: 

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho):

…This morning the national media is reporting that some of the – or a number of the attackers in Algeria are people who participated in the attack in Benghazi. Can you confirm that for us this morning?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Senator, I cannot confirm it. I can give you the background that I was able to obtain. This information is coming from the Algerian government related to their questioning of certain of the terrorists they took alive. We don’t have any way to confirm it as yet but I can certainly assure you we will do everything we can to determine that. You may know that Director Mueller was just in the region meeting with leaders; he’s very well-aware that we have to track every one of these connections and this will be a new threat that will be followed.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho):

…Only one person has been arrested regarding the attack on Benghazi and was then released. Can you tell us whether he was one of the people that participated in the Algerian attack?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

We have no information to that effect. I think you’re referring to the Tunisian [Ali] Harzi who appeared in a Tunisian court. Upon his release, I called the Tunisian Prime Minister. A few days later, Director Mueller met with the Tunisian Prime Minister. We have been assured that he is under the monitoring of the court. He was released because at that time – and Director Mueller and I spoke about this at some length – there was not an ability for evidence to be presented – that was capable of being presented in an open court. But the Tunisians have assured us that they are keeping an eye on him. I have not reason to believe he is not still in Tunis but we are checking that all the time.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho):

Thank you. You’ve just testified in your prepared remarks that you said, “The very next morning” – which would have been Wednesday morning – “I told the American people that ‘heavily armed militants assaulted our compound’ and vowed to bring them to justice.” I’m assuming that you had rock solid evidence to make such a bold statement at that time.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Well, we had 4 dead people and we had several injured – one seriously who’s still in Walter Reed. And although we did not have the chance yet to meet with any of our returnees, our team in Tripoli had received them, got medical care for them, and had sent them on. So we knew that clearly there was an attack – a heavily-armed attack. Who these people were, where they came from, why they did it – that was still to be determined.

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho):

I think you probably know where I’m going with this. The next sentence was “And I stood with President Obama as he spoke of an act of terror.” And of course, a lot has been paid to the context that the word terror was used in. But be that as it may, I want to move to the next Sunday morning when Ambassador Rice went to the Sunday morning talk shows. And I think we all realize this happened at a politically-charged time here in the country as we approached an election. Notwithstanding that, the American people are still entitled to be told the truth about this.

Did you select Ambassador [Susan] Rice to deliver the message to the American people?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

No, I did not, Senator, and let me take this opportunity to address this because obviously even though I haven’t had a chance to testify, I certainly have seen the resulting debate and concerns about this.

You’re right – it was a terrorist attack. I called it an attack by heavily-armed militants and that is clearly what happened. We know that.

The second – the harder question is what caused it and that we didn’t know. We didn’t know who the attackers were, what their motives were.

Third, as the ARB makes clear after their months of research, the picture remains still somewhat complicated.

And I say that because in the unclassified ARB, I quote “key questions surrounding identity, actions, and motivations of the perpetrators remain to be determined.” I recommend all members and staff read the classified version of the ARB, which goes into greater detail. I obviously can’t speak to it but it does go into greater detail because there were a variety of potential causes and triggers for this attack. There’s evidence that the attacks were deliberate, opportunistic, and pre-coordinated but not necessarily indicative of extensive planning.

And fourth, Senator, I would say that I personally was not focused on talking points. I was focused on keeping our people safe because as I said I have a very serious threat environment in Yemen. It turned out we had people getting over that wall in Cairo, doing damage and so we got them out. We had a serious threat against our embassy in Tunis; I had to call the President in Tunisia and beg him to send reinforcements, which he did, to finally save our embassy, which could have been a disaster. They burned, they trashed our school. So I was pretty occupied about keeping our people safe, doing what needed to be done in the follow-up to Benghazi. I really don’t think anybody in the administration was really focused on that so much as trying to figure out what we should be doing.

And you know, I wasn’t involved in the talking point process. As I understand it, as I’ve been told, it was a typical inter-agency process where staff, including from the State Department, all participated to try to come up with whatever was going to be made publicly available. And it was an intelligence product and it’s my understanding that the intelligence community is working with the appropriate committees to kind of explain the whole process.



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