THE BLOG
01/23/2013 09:46 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Partisan Motives Aside, Hillary Clinton Is Rightly in the Hot Seat Over Benghazi

After weeks of procedural delays amid charges that she was faking an illness to justify ducking Congress, former First Lady and outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will finally show up today to testify under oath about what she knew and didn't know about the growing security threat to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi Libya that eventually resulted in the death of the first American ambassador in thirty years and three others.

The appearance comes amid the release of a cable from former Ambassador Christopher Stephens to Clinton on the day he died, in which he lays out the dimensions of the growing threat, and appears to suggest that Clinton do something about it. Clearly, Clinton is on the hot seat this week, and how well she defends herself could affect not only her recent political legacy but also her 2016 presidential prospects.

Even those who don't believe that Clinton was trying to avoid testifying to Congress might still suggest that she's been playing a cagey game. She first commissioned a special State department review of the Benghazi incident that was conducted by an unimpeachable member of the U.S. foreign service, former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering, who has served loyally -- and most would say, brilliantly -- in several administrations, both Republican and Democratic. Pickering's report found serious management failures in the State department's handling of Benghazi security, but placed the blame at the assistant secretary level. Clinton wasn't even mentioned in the report.

A subsequent bipartisan report, conducted by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee, struck a harsher tone, but also appeared to exonerate Clinton from blame. Clinton's long-time friend and former Senate colleague Joe Lieberman, who'd pushed for the committee investigation to head off calls for a full Senate inquest, took the lead in managing the media release of the report, virtually ensuring that attention would be deflected away from her.

However, the real reason neither report failed to deal with Clinton was evidential. She was never interviewed, and because she can claim executive privilege, cables and emails from her office to any of the relevant parties, including her underlings, were never part of either official investigation.

That's one reason why Congress, especially leading Republicans like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who'd like to help her party make as much partisan hay of Clinton's handing the affair, have insisted that she must appear, illness or not, and despite her pending departure. In fact, leading Senators made it known to Clinton and to Obama that unless she appeared, the new Secretary of State John Kerry's nomination as her successor would not even be considered.

It's not clear how aggressive House questioners plan to get with Clinton, who enjoys some sympathy because of the apparent seriousness of her recent illness, which included what might have been a life-threatening blood clot. Clinton initially suggested that she was responsible for the security breakdown but has refused to provide additional details. She has also said that she takes the recommendations for reform laid out in the two investigative reports seriously, and plans to implement them.

But Clinton is likely to face tough questioning about her role in spreading what turned out to be a manifestly exaggerated claim that an anti-Muslim video had largely sparked the Benghazi attack, and her decision to allow UN Ambassador Susan Rice to spread that same story on five Sunday morning news programs. Amazingly, Clinton, as well as outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, told the families of the dead the same story, knowing full well that U.S. intelligence showed -- and President Obama himself knew -- that the attack was a premeditated terrorist assault.

Having once served on the Senate subcommittee investigating Nixon and Watergate, Clinton's already familiar with government officials appearing before Congress to be asked the infamous question: "What did you know, and when did you know about it?" But she probably never imagined that she would be the one being questioned or that the stakes could be this high.

Fasten your seat belts. It's likely to to be a bumpy week.

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