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BY DONNA CASSATA AND MATTHEW LEE
WASHINGTON--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered fiery rejoinders Wednesday to Republican critics of the Obama administration's handling of the deadly attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, facing off with lawmakers who included potential 2016 presidential rivals.
At times emotional and frequently combative, Clinton rejected GOP suggestions in two congressional hearings that the administration tried to mislead the country about the Sept. 11 attack that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. She insisted the State Department is moving swiftly and aggressively to strengthen security at diplomatic posts worldwide.
In her last formal testimony before Congress as America's top diplomat--but perhaps not her last time on the political stage--Clinton once again took responsibility for the department's missteps and failures leading up to the assault. But she also said that requests for more security at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi didn't reach her desk, and reminded lawmakers that they have a responsibility to fund security-related budget requests.
Three weeks after her release from a New York hospital--admitted for complications after a concussion--Clinton was at times defiant, complimentary and willing to chastise lawmakers during more than 5 hours of testimony before two separate committees. She tangled with some who could be rivals for the presidency in 2016.
Her voice cracking at one point, Clinton said the attack and the aftermath were highly personal tragedies for the families of the victims who died--Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty--as well as herself.
"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 and the wives left alone to raise their children," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a packed hearing.
Clearly annoyed with Republican complaints about the initial explanation for the attack, she rose to the defense of 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.
Clinton said, "People were trying in real time to get to the best information." And she said her own focus was on looking ahead at how to improve security rather than revisiting the talking points and Rice's comments.