Transcript of Senate hearing Q&A: Clinton describes her response to Benghazi consulate attack on Sept. 11-12

Transcribed and edited by Jenny Jiang

Partial transcript of Q&A between Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) 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. Bob Menendez (D-N.J):

My understanding is that the location of Mission Benghazi was an ongoing one and that the ultimate conclusion of Ambassador [Chris] Stevens was that we needed to be in Benghazi – the cradle of the Libyan revolution. And that while he was continuously reviewing other location options, that it was his conclusion as well as that of security personnel of the department that the current mission’s site was the best choice despite a higher price tag because it was more secure than returning to the hotel where there had been a bomb or bomb threats or moving closer to the annex because it was closer to the road. Can you give us your insights on the decision-making process regarding the location of the mission?

And as part of that, can you – also in your response – you touched upon it in your opening statement but what actions were you and your staff taking the night of Sept. 11 and into Sept. 12?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 

Well, first, you’re right, Mr. Chairman, that there was an ongoing discussion. When Chris first landed in Benghazi, he stayed in a hotel along with other representatives of different nations. There were attacks in the vicinity, including in the parking lot of the hotel. The decision was made to move. The compound was selected was being a much better location in terms of security than the alternatives. But there was an ongoing discussion between Chris and others in the Embassy in Tripoli, those going in and out of Benghazi about how best to situate our posts there.

I did see some overnight reporting about a document – I’m not sure what it is but I would observe that there were a lot of ongoing efforts because it was important that we were constantly asking what was the best place.

As you’ve said, in general, Chris was committed to not only being in Benghazi but to the location. The professionals in Washington paid close attention to Chris’s judgement based on his experience and his first-hand knowledge and so we stayed. We continued to try to upgrade the facility that was attacked.

Obviously, as the ARB [Accountability Review Board] has pointed out there were inadequacies in the response and those are the specific kinds of recommendations that we are currently implementing.

Regarding what I was doing on Sept. 11, I was at the State Department all day and late into the night. During most of the day, prior to getting notice of the attack on our compound in Benghazi, we were very focused on our Embassy in Cairo that was under assault by a group of protestors. We were assessing the security of our embassy, which is, as those of our who have been there, certainly well-defensed. But there were crowds that were intent upon trying to scale the wall and we were in close communication with our team in Cairo.

I was notified of the attack shortly after 4 p.m. Over the following hours, we were in continuous meetings and conversations both within the department, with our team in Tripoli, with the inter-agency, and internationally.

I instructed our senior department officials and our diplomatic security personnel to consider every option to just break down the doors of the Libyan officials to get as much security support as we possibly could, to coordinate with them.

I spoke to the National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, several times. I briefed him on developments. I sought all possible support from the White House, which they quickly provided. Tom was my first call.

I spoke with our charge in Tripoli to get situation updates. I spoke with former CIA Director [David] Petraeus to confer and coordinate, given the presence of his facility which, of course, was not well-known but was something that we knew and wanted to make sure that we were closely latched up together.

I talked with the then-Libyan National Congress President to press him on greater support, not only in Benghazi but also in Tripoli.

I participated in a secure video conference of senior officials from the intelligence community, the White House, and DOD [Department of Defense]. We were going over every possible option, reviewing all that was available to us, any actions we could take. We were reaching out to everyone we could find to try to get an update about Ambassador Chris Stevens – also our information specialist, Sean Smith.

So it was a constant, ongoing discussion and assessment meetings.

I spoke with President Obama later in the evening to bring him up to date, to hear his perspective.

Obviously, we kept talking with everyone during the night. Early in the morning on the 12th, I spoke with General Dempsey, again with Tom Donilon.

The two hardest calls that I made were obviously to the families of Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. And, you know, they – I have to say they were extraordinary in their responses, in their understanding of the pride we had in both men, and gratitude we had for their service.

I would also just quickly add, Mr. Chairman, that while this was going on and we were trying to understand it, get on top of it, we were continuing to face protests, demonstrations, violence across the region and as far as India and Indonesia. There were so many protests happening and thousands of people were putting our facilities at risk. And so we were certainly very determined to do whatever we could about Benghazi, we were relieved when we finally got the last of the Americans out of Benghazi, but then we were turning around dealing with the very serious threats facing so many of our other facilities.

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