Two Latinos played prominent roles in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified about the deadly September attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.
For Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), it was a debut of sorts in what is presumed to be his imminent role as chairman of the committee, a promotion that is contingent on the confirmation as the new Secretary of State of Sen. John Kerry, who heads it now. Kerry's confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Menendez, who would be the first Latino to head the prestigious committee, toed a cautious line as he lavished praise on fellow Democrat Clinton for her tenure as Secretary of State, but at the same time cited the flaws in communication among government agencies.
“In your tenure as Secretary of State –and in your appearances before this Committee– you have always been upfront, forthright and energetic in defending our foreign service officers and their needs, and I, for one, commend you for it,” Menendez said in his opening remarks.
“Unfortunately, the tragic events in Benghazi are a sad reminder of the inherent risks that come with diplomatic engagement in parts of the world that are struggling to build new governments.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) grilled Clinton about her knowledge of the security situation in Benghazi prior to the attack. He is a new member of the committee. He and Menendez are two the U.S. Senate's three Latinos. The third is Texas Republican Ted Cruz. All three are Cuban-American.
“Were you ever asked to participate in any sort of internal or interagency meeting before this attack with regards to the deteriorating security situation in Libya,” Rubio asked.
Clinton responded that she had participated in discussions about security in Libya before the attack, but those talks did not cover specific threats.
Clinton, at times emotional and fierce, insisted 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 her last formal congressional testimony 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.
"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 they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?" a clearly exasperated Clinton told Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican. "It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again."
Menendez closed the hearing with strong words about the Iraq war. He said that it was a tragedy both that four people were killed in the Benghazi attack, and that more than 4,000 have died in the Iraq war.
"I think she answered for two and a half hours forthrightly, thoroughly, thoughtfully, and I think that there are those who may have disagreements but at the end of the day no one can question, I think the truth, veracity, and depth of thoughtfulness that the Secretary answered with," Menendez said.
"If there are those who want to continue to pursue the politics of this, they obviously have the right to do so, but I don't think they'd be doing the ultimate service to those who served in our Foreign Service."
This story contains material from The Associated Press.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente