WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at times emotional and fierce, insisted on Wednesday that the department is moving swiftly and aggressively to strengthen security at U.S. missions worldwide after the deadly Sept. 11 raid on the consulate in Libya.
In probably her last appearance on Capitol Hill as America's top diplomat, Clinton once again took full responsibility for the department's missteps leading up to assault at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Her voice cracking at one point, Clinton said the experience was highly personal.
"I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a jam-packed hearing.
Her voice rising at another point, she defended U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was vilified for widely debunked claims five days after the attack that protests precipitated the raid rather than terrorism. She challenged the GOP focus on Rice's comments, which were based on intelligence talking points.
"What difference does it make?" a clearly exasperated Clinton told Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., after he pressed her. She insisted that "people were trying in real time to get to the best information," and that her focus was on looking ahead on how to improve security rather than revisiting the talking points and Rice's television appearance.
Clinton said the department is implementing the 29 recommendations of an independent review board that harshly criticized the department as well as going above and beyond the proposals, with a special focus on high-threat posts.
The review board report faulted "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department" and four employees were put on administrative leave.
"Nobody is more committed to getting this right," she said. "I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure."
A defiant Clinton refused to back down from withering GOP criticism of the Obama administration's shifting explanations about the assault.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Clinton friend in the Senate, offered praise along with complaints.
"It's wonderful to see you in good health and combative as ever," McCain told a visibly slimmer Clinton, whose planned testimony last month was delayed because of her illness.
In the same breath, he dismissed her explanation of events, the administration's response to warning about the deteriorating security situation in Libya and even the attention paid to Libya after rebels toppled strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
For her part, Clinton complained about the congressional holds placed on foreign aid and bilateral assistance.
"We have to get our act together," she told the panel.
Her testimony focused not only on the attack but the growing threat from extremists in northern Africa, pointing out that Libya was not an isolated incident.
"The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region," she said. "And instability in Mali 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."