ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. — Four Americans killed in an attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya returned home Friday, their remains each carried in a slow procession by six Marines as a military band filled a vast air base hangar with the mournful hymn "Nearer My God to Thee."
President Barack Obama led the ceremony, recalling their lives in deeply personal terms and declaring the United States will never pull back on its principles or "retreat from the world."
"Their sacrifice will never be forgotten," Obama said as four flag-draped cases rested near him. He had come to witness the return of those slain in the assault on the American diplomatic mission, including the U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens.
In the heat of a presidential election year, the scene was a gripping reminder of the danger facing Americans in diplomatic and military service every day, and of the turmoil in an incendiary region of the world that continues to test Obama's leadership.
Always in the background, campaign politics gave way to a sense of sheer loss. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's voice broke as she spoke before the president, and she appeared to be fighting tears as she listened to him.
In addition to Stevens, the ceremony also honored three other Americans killed in Benghazi – Sean Smith, an Air Force veteran who worked as an information management specialist for the State Department; Glen A. Doherty, a former Navy SEAL who worked for a private security firm and was protecting the consulate in Benghazi; and Tyrone S. Woods, also a former Navy SEAL who had served protective duty in various U.S. posts.
"They knew the danger, and they accepted it," Obama said. "They didn't simply embrace the American ideal. They lived it."
The ceremony recalled one 14 years ago, when President Bill Clinton led a ceremony at Andrews for the return of remains of 10 Americans killed in a bombing in Nairobi.
The presidential election, however, did not recede for the day. Less than two hours after the ceremony, Obama took his motorcade on an unscheduled trip to the Democratic Party headquarters to hold political meetings. In the evening, he planned to attend a previously arranged fundraiser in Washington.
The transfer of remains came three days after an attack on the consulate, one of a series of assaults on U.S. outposts in Muslim countries that U.S. officials blame on an anti-Muslim video made in the United States.
Clinton said the rage and violence aimed at American missions was prompted by "an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with."
The president met privately with family members of the fallen before stepping into a cavernous hangar at this base he knows well, home to Air Force One. Emerging from a C-17 cargo plane, six Marines each carried the cases on top of stands before four waiting hearses, as a color guard led the somber procession. When the funeral hymn stopped, a deep silence took over, interrupted only by the quiet steps of the Marines.
Clinton and Obama both spoke of how the four men lived their lives – and how their mission would go on.
"This work, and the men and women who risk their lives to do it, are at the heart of what makes America great and good," Clinton said. "So we will wipe away our tears, stiffen our spines, and face the future undaunted."
Said Obama: "The United States of America will never retreat from the world. We will never stop working for the dignity and freedom that every person deserves."
Also attending the ceremony were Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
The searing images of burning flags, breached embassies and smoldering cars have shocked the nation.
The deaths on Tuesday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the anti-American sentiment behind them underscored a foreign policy paradox for Obama. Many of the protests in the Arab world were in countries that underwent Obama-backed revolutions during the Arab Spring.
"The people Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of the mob," Clinton said. "Reasonable people and responsible leaders in these countries need to do everything they can to restore security and hold accountable those behind these violent acts."
Illustrating the volatility, Friday's ceremony unfolded as a Marine rapid response team arrived in Yemen's capital as protests erupted there.
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President Barack Obama
"I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America's commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives. I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants. On a personal note, Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States. Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi. As Ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya's transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice. I am profoundly grateful for his service to my Administration, and deeply saddened by this loss. The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe. As we stand united with their families, let us now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward."
"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions," the statement read. "The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached, protesters were inside the grounds," said Romney at his press conference. "They reiterated that statement after the breach. I think it's a -- a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values. That instead, when our grounds are being attacked, and being breached, that the first response to the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America's values is never the right course." The embassy's statement, however, came before the protests -- not after, as Romney claimed. The embassy did subsequently tweet that it stood by its condemnation of the video, but it also condemned the attacks. When reporters pointed out that the White House disavowed the Cairo embassy's statement, Romney said he agreed with that response. He still said, however, that the embassy was part of Obama's administration, and therefore the president was ultimately responsible. "It's their administration," said Romney. "Their administration spoke. The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come his mouth but also from the words of his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department. They clearly sent mixed messages to the world, and the statement that came from the administration, and the embassy is the administration."
Secretary Of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
"It is with profound sadness that I share the news of the death of four American personnel in Benghazi, Libya, yesterday. Among them were United States Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. We are still making next of kin notifications for the other two individuals. Our hearts go out to all their families and colleagues. A 21-year veteran of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Stevens died last night from injuries he sustained in the attack on our office in Benghazi. I had the privilege of swearing in Chris for his post in Libya only a few months ago. He spoke eloquently about his passion for service, for diplomacy and for the Libyan people. This assignment was only the latest in his more than two decades of dedication to advancing closer ties with the people of the Middle East and North Africa, which began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. As the conflict in Libya unfolded, Chris was one of the first Americans on the ground in Benghazi. He risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation. He spent every day since helping to finish the work that he started. Chris was committed to advancing America's values and interests, even when that meant putting himself in danger. Sean Smith was a husband and a father of two, who joined the Department ten years ago. Like Chris, Sean was one of our best. Prior to arriving in Benghazi, he served in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal and most recently The Hague. All the Americans we lost in yesterday's attacks made the ultimate sacrifice. We condemn this vicious and violent attack that took their lives, which they had committed to helping the Libyan people reach for a better future. America's diplomats and development experts stand on the front lines every day for our country. We are honored by the service of each and every one of them."
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.)
"Less than 24 hours after our nation remembered the heinous attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans find their sovereign soil attacked again as more American lives are lost at the hands of intolerant, barbaric, radical Muslims. United States Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Smith, and several embassy staff were murdered late yesterday when suspected religious extremists stormed the United States Consulate in Benghazi. This morning, my condolences and prayers go out to the families of the victims. Americans need to question whether the deaths of these innocent patriots could have been avoided. The Obama Administration touted the Arab Spring as an awakening of freedom, which we now see is a nightmare of Islamism. Even more concerning, is the initial response to these attacks last night from the embassy officials of the Obama Administration was to apologize for a Facebook video that supposedly hurt Muslim feelings. President Obama's policy of appeasement towards the Islamic world has manifested itself into a specter of unconscionable hatred. How anyone can believe this President is strong on national security and foreign policy is beyond my comprehension. President Obama has clearly surpassed former President Jimmy Carter and his actions during the Iranian Embassy crisis, as the weakest and most ineffective person to ever occupy the White House."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
"We learned yesterday, and are receiving reports this morning, of the attacks against the United States Embassy in Cairo and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. "In Benghazi our Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in service to our nation. Our thoughts and sympathy today are with the families of these brave Americans. "These attacks remind us of the sacrifices made on a daily basis by foreign service officers, diplomatic security personnel, and our Marine Security Guards. "I join my colleagues in strongly condemning the murder of these innocent Americans. And I support employing every available tool at our disposal to ensure the safety of Americans overseas and to hunt down those responsible for these attacks. "Yesterday we commemorated the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, and today we are reminded that brave Americans serve us every day at the risk of their own lives. We honor the Americans we lost in Libya, and we will stand united in our response. "Among the things we can all agree on in Washington is that attacks on the U.S. and its representatives will be met with resolve, and that America's presence and defense of our national interests across the globe will not be deterred by the acts of violent extremists."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
"I was deeply disturbed and saddened to learn of the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. I join President Obama in condemning these senseless acts of violence. And my thoughts are with the families of those who were killed in this horrific attack. "It is too often forgotten that American diplomats risk their lives on a daily basis. Our diplomatic corps is filled with admirable and dedicated public servants. And the four Americans who lost their lives yesterday exemplified the courage and sacrifice that happens every day at diplomatic posts across the globe. "I have traveled to many of America's embassies abroad, and I have always been impressed by and grateful for the leadership and commitment of America's ambassadors and State Department personnel. Ambassador Stevens was a career Foreign Service officer and a former Peace Corps volunteer, who spent his life giving of his time and his talents to promote democracy and American values. "I support President Obama's directive to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the world, and to provide whatever resources necessary to keep our personnel in Libya safe. And I will continue to the monitor the situation as we learn more about these terrible events."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)
"I join with President Obama and other Americans in condemning these horrible acts against our public servants, and offer my deepest condolences to the families that lost loved ones. "At at a time when we should be standing together against these senseless acts of violence, Mitt Romney offered an atrocious political response that undermines our unity in the face of threats to Americans around the world."
"This senseless attack on our consulate in Libya is contemptible. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those whose lives were lost. Right now, we should all honor the courage, dedication, and sacrifice of Ambassador Chris Stevens and the other Americans who gave their lives in the service of our country."
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today released the following joint statement regarding the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya yesterday. "We are anguished and outraged by the death of four citizens of the United States, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, during an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families. "Chris was one of America's finest and bravest diplomats, and also someone we considered a friend. In the midst of last year's uprising in Libya, Chris traveled at great personal risk to Benghazi to represent the country he loved as the U.S. envoy to the Libyan opposition. He advanced American interests and values in Libya and stood with the Libyan people throughout their struggle for freedom and during the challenging times that followed. His death at the hands of extremists is a tragic and awful loss for the people of both the United States and Libya. "There is still much we do not know about what happened in Benghazi yesterday. What is clear, however, is that the attackers must be apprehended and punished. We appreciate that senior Libyan leaders have condemned these cowardly attacks, and we now look to the Libyan government to ensure that the perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice, and that U.S. diplomats are protected. We have confidence that our own government will provide all necessary assistance to this end. "Yesterday's attack is a tragic and terrible reminder that - despite the hopes of the Arab Spring - the forces of violent extremism in the Middle East are far from defeated, and that the revolutions inspired by millions of people who dream of freedom and democracy can still be hijacked by small groups of violent extremists who are eager to kill to advance their evil ideology. "Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken. We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists. "To follow this misguided path would not only be a victory for the extremists and their associates, but a betrayal of everything for which Chris Stevens and his colleagues stood and gave their lives. In short, it would be a betrayal of our own best ideals as Americans and our own enduring interest in using our great influence to support the overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East who want to be free from the kinds of murderers and terrorists who killed our people yesterday in Benghazi."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
Richard Burr (R-N.C.)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Congressman Joe Baca
Rep. Keith Ellison
Senator Roy Blunt
Speaker John Boehner
Michael Burgess, MD
U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar
Rep. Adam Smith
"I join President Obama, Secretary Clinton and my colleagues in the Senate in strongly condemning the horrific attack targeting American U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. "My heart goes out to the families of Ambassador Stevens and the other brave Americans who were killed in this senseless act of violence. They were committed public servants who courageously risked theirlives supporting the Libyan people and political transition. The service ofthese brave Americans epitomizes the best of our values, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten."
Senator John Boozman
Rep. Pete King