Transcript: Clinton’s response to Sen. Jeff Flake’s question on Amb. Rice & the decision to remain in Benghazi

Transcribed and edited by Jenny Jiang

Partial transcript of Q&A between Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) 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. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.):

…With regards to the appearance of Dr. [Susan] Rice on the morning show, which you mentioned that you did not select her, were you consulted in that decision?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

No. It would not be any way unusual for Ambassador Rice to represent the administration on a foreign relations issue.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.):

Right, and I don’t think it was either. But afterwards, after she testified, it was clear that what she testified to was in variance with a lot of communications from the State Department and a lot of the information that had been gathered and things that had been said by yourself and others at the State Department. Can you just enlighten us a bit as to the discussions that went on at the State Department after that testimony? Was there – I mean, these are professionals that you oversee who do a lot of hard work, to give analysis and this kind of assessment. What she said was clearly at variance with a lot of the research and analysis that had gone on about the nature of these attacks. Can you enlighten us as to the discussion? What discussions were had at the State Department after this testimony?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Well, I don’t think – I cannot speak to any conversation I specifically had because the conversations were ongoing before and after Ambassador Rice’s appearance on the Sunday talk shows. And we did not conclude, finally, that there were no protest at all until days after the attack. So maybe it was an abundance of caution, maybe it was trying to make sure we didn’t step on anybody’s toes while we were gathering information, maybe it was because the IC was still looking at all of their sources and having different threats coming in.

But as the ARB said even today the motivations, the actions before they went on to the compound – all of that is still not nailed down.

So I think we were trying very hard to provide information. Maybe one of the lessons learned here is, you know, just withhold – don’t say what you don’t know for sure until it’s finally decided. But that’s not part of who we are as Americans and as public officials we get out there and we say, “Here’s what we think happened. It’s subject to change.” And so I think that we all wished that nobody had ever in any raised doubts but certainly Ambassador Rice and all the other administration officials were speaking off what had been determined were the most acceptable talking points.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.):

Well, I think we know now the talking points – we don’t exactly know where they were changed or how they were changed but they were changed or altered and I think that we can all concede that we were not given a clear picture of what went on.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Well, but Senator, you know, we didn’t have a clear picture. I wish I could sit here today and tell you that within days – within a week, by September 20th when we came up here – we had a clear picture. We did not have a clear picture. And that, you know, if you wish to fault the administration…we probably didn’t do as clear a job explaining we did not have a clear picture until days later, creating what I think are legitimate questions. You know, I understand – I’ve been on the other side of the table. I understand trying to figure out what was going on and why we were told this that and the other. But I can only assure you that as the information came to light and as people thought it was reliable, we shared it but that took some time.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.):

…You mentioned that many of the recommendations have now been put in place or there are protocols in place to make sure that if security is not adequate then we move our diplomats and others to places where they’re more secure, more whatever. But let me just say there were protocols in place before this, there were tripwires that we tripped, and the actions that were outlined to be taken were not taken. How could we be assured here that the new protocols that are in place with these new recommendations being implemented will be followed or adhered to because they clearly weren’t before?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Well, Senator, I want to make clear that no one in the State Department, in the intelligence community, any other agencies ever recommended that we close Benghazi. We were clear-eyed about the threats and the dangers as they were developing in eastern Libya and in Benghazi, but there was no decision made and nothing that prompted such a decision.

Now, sitting here today, we have probably at least 20 other posts that are under a serious threat environment as I speak to you. We are working with the other agencies in our governments – some of whom are co-located with us, others of whom are nearby. We’re constantly assessing. And sometimes we get it wrong but it’s rare that we get it wrong.

This is one of those terrible, tragic times when, you know, there was an assessment shared by the Ambassador, shared by others that turned out not to take into account the militants attacking that night.

So I could tell you that there are, as you say, trip wires but what we’re going to try to do is elevate the discussion and the decision-making so that there’s not any doubt that everybody’s on the same page, that we’re not missing information, we’re not husbanding resources and thereby making less than optimal decisions. That’s what we’re going to try to institutionalize going forward.

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