Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

In Context: Hillary Clinton's 'What difference does it make' comment

Then-Secretary of State and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., greeted each other prior to a Senate committee hearing on Jan. 23, 2013 in this Reuters photo.
Then-Secretary of State and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., greeted each other prior to a Senate committee hearing on Jan. 23, 2013 in this Reuters photo.

If the buildup doesn’t disappoint, you can expect plenty of news out of the U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing on May 8, 2013.

The panel, which includes freshman U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, will review how President Barack Obama’s administration -- including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- handled the Sept. 11, 2012 bombing at the U.S. consulate in Benghzai, Libya.

The attack killed four Americans -- and set off administration critics such as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

A few days before the hearing, it was disclosed that a top U.S. diplomat had said "everyone" at the consulate thought "from the beginning" that the attack was an act of terror.

And even before that, Johnson had reminded citizens at least twice of what Clinton told him about the attack during a Senate committee hearing in January 2013.

"Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans," Clinton said. "What difference – at this point, what difference does it make?"

So that was the punch-line quote. But what was the context?

With Benghazi back in the news and renewed attention being paid to Clinton's comment, we thought this would be a good time for In Context, an occasional feature that gives context to statements that get widespread notice.

Based on a C-SPAN video of their six-minute exchange, here is a transcript of what Johnson and Clinton said during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 23, 2013:

Johnson: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Madam Secretary. I'd like to join my colleagues in thanking you for your service sincerely, and also appreciate the fact that you’re here testifying and glad that you’re looking in good health.

Clinton: Thank you.

Johnson: Were you fully aware in real time -- and again, I realize how big your job is and everything is erupting in the Middle East at this time -- were you fully aware of these 20 incidents that were reported in the ARB[State Department Accountability Review Board] in real time?

Clinton: I was aware of the ones that were brought to my attention. They were part of our ongoing discussion about the deteriorating threat environment in eastern Libya. We certainly were very conscious of them. I was assured by our security professionals that repairs were under way, additional security upgrades had taken place.

Johnson: Thank you. Did you see personally the cable on -- I believe it was August 12th -- specifically asking for, basically, reinforcements for the security detail that was going to be evacuating or leaving in August? Did you see that personally?

Clinton: No, sir.

Johnson: OK. When you read the ARB, it strikes me as how certain the people were that the attacks started at 9:40 Benghazi time. When was the first time you spoke to -- or have you ever spoken to -- the returnees, the evacuees? Did you personally speak to those folks?

Clinton: I‘ve spoken to one of them, but I waited until after the ARB had done its investigation because I did not want there to be anybody raising any issue that I had spoken to anyone before the ARB conducted its investigation.

Johnson: How many people were evacuated from Libya?

Clinton: Well, the numbers are a little bit hard to pin down because of our other friends --

Johnson: Approximately?

Clinton: Approximately, 25 to 30.

Johnson: Did anybody in the State Department talk to those folks very shortly afterwards?

Clinton: There was discussion going on afterwards, but once the investigation started, the FBI spoke to them before we spoke to them, and so other than our people in Tripoli -- which, I think you’re talking about Washington, right?

Johnson: The point I’m making is, a very simple phone call to these individuals, I think, would’ve ascertained immediately that there was no protest prior to this. This attack started at 9:40 p.m. Benghazi time and it was an assault. I appreciate the fact that you called it an assault. But I’m going back to then-Ambassador [Susan] Rice five days later going on the Sunday shows and, what I would say, is purposefully misleading the American public. Why wasn’t that known? And again, I appreciate the fact that the transparency of this hearing, but why weren’t we transparent to that point in time?

Clinton: Well, first of all, Senator, I would say that once the assault happened, and once we got our people rescued and out, our most immediate concern was, number one, taking care of their injuries. As I said, I still have a DS [Diplomatic Security] agent at Walter Reed seriously injured -- getting them into Frankfurt, Ramstein to get taken care of, the FBI going over immediately to start talking to them. We did not think it was appropriate for us to talk to them before the FBI conducted their interviews. And we did not -- I think this is accurate, sir -- I certainly did not know of any reports that contradicted the IC [Intelligence Community] talking points at the time that Ambassador Rice went on the TV shows. And you know I just want to say that people have accused Ambassador Rice and the administration of misleading Americans. I can say trying to be in the middle of this and understanding what was going on, nothing could be further from the truth. Was information developing? Was the situation fluid? Would we reach conclusions later that weren’t reached initially? And I appreciate the --

Johnson: But, Madame Secretary, do you disagree with me that a simple phone call to those evacuees to determine what happened wouldn’t have ascertained immediately that there was no protest? That was a piece of information that could have been easily, easily obtained?

Clinton: But, Senator, again—

Johnson: Within hours, if not days?

Clinton: Senator, you know, when you’re in these positions, the last thing you want to do is interfere with any other process going on, number one—

Johnson: I realize that’s a good excuse.

Clinton: Well, no, it’s the fact. Number two, I would recommend highly you read both what the ARB said about it and the classified ARB because, even today, there are questions being raised. Now, we have no doubt they were terrorists, they were militants, they attacked us, they killed our people. But what was going on and why they were doing what they were doing is still unknown --

Johnson: No, again, we were misled that there were supposedly protests and that something sprang out of that -- an assault sprang out of that -- and that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact, and the American people could have known that within days and they didn’t know that.

Clinton: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information. The IC has a process, I understand, going with the other committees to explain how these talking points came out. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

Johnson: OK. Thank you, Madame Secretary.