The attack by armed militants that killed US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans threatens to blight her legacy as secretary of state. It may also dent any hopes that she may have of running for the White House in 2016, after losing out in 2008.
By turns tearful and fiery yesterday, Mr Clinton choked up as she spoke of comforting the victims’ families and grew angry when a Republican senator accused president Barack Obama’s administration of misleading America over whether the Benghazi incident stemmed from a protest over a US-made video.
“With all due respect, the fact is that we had four dead Americans,” Mrs Clinton shot back as she testified before the Senate foreign relations committee, an appearance delayed more than a month because of ill-health.
“Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” she said, making chopping motions with her hands. She cast the incident as part of a long history of such violence as well as the result of regional instability since the Arab Spring began in 2011.
She is expected to step down in the coming days once her designated successor, John Kerry, is confirmed by the Senate.
Republicans harshly criticised her, and Mr Obama’s administration, with one saying the Benghazi attack and US response displayed “woeful unpreparedness” and another saying Mrs Clinton should have been fired.
Militants overwhelmed the diplomatic facility in Benghazi in a sustained assault. An official US inquiry concluded the US State Department was unprepared to deal with the attack, citing “leadership and management” deficiencies, poor co-ordination and unclear lines of authority in Washington.
A separate Senate committee report said the State Department made a “grievous mistake” in keeping the Benghazi mission open despite inadequate security and increasingly alarming threat assessments in the weeks before the attack.
Mrs Clinton at one point said yesterday she had not seen requests from US officials in Libya seeking additional security.
“Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables … I would have relieved you of your post. I think it’s inexcusable,” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky told her.
Mrs Clinton’s voice cracked as she spoke of comforting families who lost loved ones in the attack, the first since 1988 in which a US ambassador was killed.
“For me, this is not just a matter of policy – it’s personal,” Mrs Clinton told the Senate panel.
“I stood next to President Obama as the marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews,” she added, her voice breaking as she described the ceremony at Andrews air force base in Maryland when the men’s remains were brought home.
“I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters and the wives left alone to raise their children,” she said. “I take responsibility.”