WASHINGTON - As Republicans heap criticism on Vice President Joe Biden for claiming "we weren't told" about requests for extra security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday the precise details of the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the compound in Libya still remain unclear.
One month after the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, Clinton said the administration is committed to uncovering the truth about what happened.
"There is much we still don't know and I am the first to say that," Clinton told reporters at the State Department after meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi.
"But as someone who has been at the center of this tragedy from the beginning, I do know this: there is nobody in this administration motivated by anything other than trying to understand what happened," she said.
"We are doing all we can to prevent it from ever happening again anywhere and, of course, we are, as a government, doing what it takes to track down those who are responsible."
Clinton was to deliver a speech later Friday to a Washington think tank in which she was expected to defend posting U.S. diplomats in dangerous corners of the world.
Republicans have seized on the incident as a sign of weakness in President Barack Obama's foreign policy and criticized the administration for at first suggesting that the attack was motivated by anger at an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. That explanation has now been discarded as evidence mounts that it was a well-organized terrorist attack.
Republicans have also denounced the administration for denying several appeals for additional security at the consulate in the months before the attack. And they have seized on Biden's statement in Thursday's vice presidential debate that "we weren't told they wanted more security there."
On Wednesday, two former security officials testified before Congress that their requests for more manpower were either ignored or rejected. Senior State Department officials acknowledged that that was the case but insisted that there was no evidence that more security would have thwarted or otherwise mitigated the attack.
Biden said, "We did not know they wanted more security again."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Biden was referring specifically to the White House, which wouldn't receive such requests.
Biden also defended the administration's early explanation that the attack sprang from anti-video protest, saying that had been the judgment of the intelligence community at the time.
"We said exactly what the intelligence community told us that they knew," he said. "That was the assessment. And as the intelligence community changed their view, we made it clear they changed their view."
Clinton did not address Biden's comments in her remarks, but she sided with the vice president on the intelligence.
"To this day, to this day, we do not have a complete picture," Clinton said. "We do not have all the answers, no one in this administration has ever claimed otherwise."
"Every one of us has made clear that we are providing the best information we have at that time and that information continues to be updated, it also continues to be put into context and more deeply understood through the process we are engaged in," she said.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has come in for particularly withering criticism from Republicans for asserting on Sunday morning talk shows that preliminary intelligence indicated that well-armed extremists hijacked a protest against the film to attack the consulate.
Several senior State Department officials have said they had never concluded that was the case even though it was the early assessment from the intelligence community.
Republicans have suggested that the administration was trying to cover up the real reason for the attack, which they say was a pre-meditated strike against the United States on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
"Ambassador Rice had the same information from the intelligence community as every other senior official did," Clinton said. "We can only tell you what we know based on our most current understanding of the attack and what led up to it. Obviously, we know more as time goes by and we will know even more than we did hours and days after the attack."
There are three separate investigations into the attack going on now: an FBI probe into the deaths of the four Americans, an independent inquiry by a panel appointed by Clinton and the congressional hearings.
Clinton urged caution and patience in dealing with partial accounts.
"I want us to keep in mind that four Americans were killed, four men who served our country," she said. "Dozens of Americans fought for their lives that night, and to honor them we all have to get to the bottom of every question and answer it to the best of our ability."
"And then we have to be sure that we apply the lessons we learned to make sure that we protect everybody in harm's way."