Hillary Clinton on Thursday told a House investigative panel that the military did everything possible to get to the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi during a deadly 2012 attack.
But the former secretary of state, who is now a Democratic candidate for president, said response units were too far away to reach the scene because allied revolutionary forces in control of Libya had rejected the presence of foreign troops in the country.
After 17 months of investigative work, the House Select Committee on Benghazi, led by Republicans, called Clinton to testify in a showdown over the embassy attack by armed militants, which appeared to catch the United States flatfooted and left the ambassador and three other Americans dead.
"Our military did everything they could, they turned over every rock … It was beyond the geographic range," Clinton said Thursday during questioning.
Clinton said the State Department had taken a known risk by operating in Libya, where the revolution to overthrow longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the opposition backed by the U.S. had resisted allowing military personnel for embassy sites.
"It is very challenging to get military assets into countries that don’t want them there," she said.
No U.S. service members were stationed at the embassy when armed militants flooded into the State Department compound and set fire to it during the nighttime attack on Sept. 11, the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens died in the fire along with another State Department official, Sean Smith.
Embassy personnel retreated to nearby CIA compound as the attack continued. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, former Navy SEALs working as CIA contractors, were killed while defending that compound.
The Defense Department knew of the attacks soon after they began and immediately ordered an unarmed surveillance drone on sight. Personnel arrived from Tripoli before dawn and the Marine Corps’ quick-reaction embassy protection troops, called Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams, arrived from Rota, Spain after the battle ended.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq combat veteran, said closer communication between the military’s Africa Command and the State Department embassy could have led to prepositioning of military personnel closer to Libya.
Clinton faced lengthy, more pointed questioning from Republican committee members over her handling of the incident, which has drawn intense criticism since it occurred.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chair of the select committee, said the military reaction was part of the House inquiry, which was still probing unanswered questions and incomplete investigative reports three years later.
"What did the military do or not do?" he said.
Gowdy said the embassy did not come close to meeting security specifications and no additional security was ordered during the 9/11 anniversary. Other Republicans have charged Clinton and President Barack Obama’s administration for ignoring security threats and then misleading the public over the nature of the attack.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice gave interviews the day after the attack, saying it was spontaneous and caused by the rancor over the release of an anti-Islamic film, which triggered protests elsewhere. But later, the CIA confirmed the initial intelligence on the embassy attack was incorrect and that is was staged by a group of militants intent on attacking the United States.
Democrats have said the lengthy inquiry is a political maneuver to undercut Clinton’s presidential bid. The debate over Benghazi led to the revelation that Clinton used a personal email account for classified State Department correspondence and also played a role in House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently pulling out of the race for speaker to replace John Boehner.
"The problem is Republicans just keep asking the same question over and over again and pretend they don’t know the answer," said Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on the committee.