From Elise Labott
LIMA, Peru (CNN) — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday tried to douse a political firestorm over the deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, saying she’s responsible for the security of American diplomatic outposts.
“I take responsibility,” Clinton said during a visit to Peru. “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They’re the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision.”
But she said an investigation now under way will ultimately determine what happened at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed on September 11.
“I take this very personally,” Clinton said. “So we’re going to get to the bottom of it, and then we’re going to do everything we can to work to prevent it from happening again, and then we’re going to work to bring whoever did this to us to justice.”
The attack took place in the eastern Libyan city that was the cradle of that country’s 2011 revolution. Obama administration officials initially blamed a mob inflamed by a U.S.-produced movie that mocked Islam and its Prophet Mohammed, but later said the storming of the consulate appears to have been a terrorist attack.
With criticism growing, Vice President Joe Biden said during last week’s vice presidential debate that the White House did not know of requests to enhance security at Benghazi, contradicting testimony by State Department employees that requests had been made and rejected. After the debate, the White House said the vice president did not know of the requests because they were handled, as is the practice, by the State Department.
“In the wake of an attack like this, in the fog of war, there’s always going to be confusion,” Clinton said. “And I think it is absolutely fair to say that everyone had the same intelligence. Everyone who spoke tried to give the information that they had. As time has gone on, that information has changed. We’ve gotten more detail, but that’s not surprising. That always happens.”
She added, “What I want to avoid is some kind of political gotcha or blame game.”
“I know that we’re very close to an election,” Clinton said. “I want to just take a step back here and say from my own experience, we are at our best as Americans when we pull together. I’ve done that with Democratic presidents and Republican presidents.”
Her remarks drew a quick response from three Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including ranking member John McCain.
Clinton’s statement of responsibility was “a laudable gesture, especially when the White House is trying to avoid any responsibility whatsoever,” the Arizona senator said in a joint broadside with Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. However, they added, “The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the commander-in-chief. The buck stops there.”
Stevens, State Department computer expert Sean Smith and security contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods died in the Benghazi assault, which State Department officials now say was the work of dozens of armed men.
Clinton also described a desperate scene in the State Department during the hours of the attack, as staff tried to find out what had happened.
“This was a many-hour ordeal that we were all involved in, and I was deeply concerned as you would obviously assume, to hear about an attack,” she said. Not only was the picture coming out of Libya murky, but also, “Then we couldn’t find Ambassador Stevens, and we were trying desperately to figure out what happened to him and to Sean Smith and to the others who were there.”
Clinton said her mission now is to make sure such an attack will never happen again, and also to ensure the work of American diplomats won’t be stopped even in dangerous areas like Benghazi.
“We can’t retreat. We have to continue to lead. We have to be engaged,” she said. “We can’t hang out behind walls.” She said Stevens, who came to Benghazi on a cargo ship to start building ties with rebel leaders during last year’s revolt, “knew that more than anybody.”