US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday defended her handling of the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed four Americans, an event that threatens to stain her legacy at the State Department.
In probably her last appearance in Congress as America's top diplomat, Clinton once again took full responsibility for the department's missteps leading up to the assault at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Clinton's testimony was focusing on the Libya attack after more than three months of Republican charges that the Obama administration ignored signs of a deteriorating security situation there and cast an act of terrorism as mere protests over an anti-Muslim video in the heat of a presidential election. Washington officials suspect militants linked to al-Qaida carried out the attack.
"Benghazi didn't happen in a vacuum," Clinton said at the start of a Senate hearing into the September 11 assault on a US mission in eastern Libya.
"The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region," she told the Senate Foreign Relations committee called to review the lessons learned from the Benghazi attack, in which US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
She choked up as she described welcoming the fallen diplomats home, when their bodies arrived in flag-draped coffins at the Andrews Air Force base.
"I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children," she said, choking back a sob.
She warned lawmakers, however, that US diplomacy could not pull back in face of the new challenges posed by the evolving geopolitical landscape, saying the United States had to meet a "changing threat environment."
"We cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened," she said.
Clinton also highlighted "instability in Mali," saying it "has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria."
"It's been a cover-up from the beginning," said Senator John McCain, a leading Republican and the newest member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Clinton is the subject of constant speculation she might be a presidential candidate in 2016.