Hillary Clinton faced accusations of incompetence, evasion and obfuscation by angry members of Congress at two hearing into the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi last year.
Although the US secretary of state was roundly praised for her "extraordinary" work as she prepares to leave office, she came under strong criticism over her handling of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11.
Some of the strongest criticism came at the Senate foreign relations committee from John McCain, who has been at the forefront of challenging the Obama administration's account of the assault. He was particularly critical of Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who was initially put up by the White House to say that the attack on the consulate followed a demonstration outside over an anti-Muslim video made by a California resident, which prompted protests in Cairo and other cities.
McCain accused the administration of continuing to withhold information. "People don't bring RPGs and mortars to spontaneous demonstrations. That's a fundamental," he told Clinton. "Here we are, four months later, and we still don't have the basic information."
Clinton said that the Benghazi attack did not happen in isolation and that she was dealing with other "very serious threats" at the time. "There were so many protests happening, and thousands of people were putting our facilities at risk," she said.
Later Clinton said that "we were very focused on our embassy in Cairo" at the time. "There were crowds that were intent upon trying to scale the wall, and we were in close communication with our team in Cairo," she said.
The secretary of state dismissed suggestions she had not reacted firmly enough, saying that she told American diplomats in Tripoli to "break down the doors of Libyan officials to get as much support as possible".
Senator Ron Johnson riled Clinton by repeatedly challenging her account of the events leading up to the attack. He said that "we were misled that there were supposedly protests" before the assault and wanted to know why the secretary of state hadn't made "a simple phone call" to ascertain the truth.
"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," the secretary of state responded, clearly irritated. "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? It is our job to figure out what happened and to do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator."
Clinton said it would have been inappropriate to bypass the usual procedures. Johnson responded: "I realise that's a good excuse".
The secretary of state shot back: "No, it's a fact".
After the hearing, Johnson accused Clinton of staging her outburst with "theatrics".
"I'm not sure she had rehearsed for that type of question," he told BuzzFeed. (http://www.buzzfeed.com/mckaycoppins/ron-johnson-hillary-clinton-planned-to-get-emotio) "I think she just decided before she was going to describe emotionally the four dead Americans, the heroes, and use that as her trump card to get out of the questions. It was a good way of getting out of really having to respond to me."
However, for all the drama of the hearing, the issue of the Benghazi attacks appears to be losing its political sting. With the election out of the way, Clinton about to leave office and the state department already implementing reforms following a highly critical report, there did not appear to be anywhere for the senators to take the criticisms
Earlier, Clinton attempted to put the Benghazi attack into context, noting that 65 US diplomats have been killed since 1977, and that American overseas posts have endured attacks from the Iran hostage siege to the bombing of US embassies in east Africa.
Her voice broke as she spoke about attending the arrival of the bodies of ambassador Chris Stevens and the other officials back in the US, and of comforting their relatives.
But Clinton angered some senators when she distanced herself from one of the most contentious aspects of the crisis: namely the state department's failure to heed requests for additional security for US diplomats in Benghazi because of a series of attacks, including one on British diplomats.
"I do feel responsible. I feel responsible for the nearly 70,000 people who work for the state department. I take it very seriously. But the specific security requests pertaining to Benghazi were handled by the security professionals in the department. I didn't see those requests. They didn't come to me. I didn't approve them. I didn't deny them," she said.
Senator Rand Paul, who suggested to Clinton that her stepping down from the secretary of state role was a sign of her accepting "culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11", said she deserved to be sacked over her handling of the security issue.
"Had I been president at the time, and I found that you had not read the cables … I would have relieved you of your post," said Paul. "I don't suspect you of bad motives, but it was a failure of leadership not to be involved. It was a failure of leadership not to know these things. I'm glad you're accepting responsibility – because no one else is."
Paul then baffled Clinton by asking her whether the US is shipping weapons from Libya to Turkey, presumably for onward transfer to Syrian rebels - a claim based on a report by Fox News.
"I will have to take that question for the record. No one's ever raised that with me," she said.
Clinton attempted to shift some of the responsibility for weakened security to Congress by saying it consistently failed to provide the funds requested by the state department.
Other senators weighed in. Bob Corker described the Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi crisis as the "worst of Washington", and said that a "bizarre" briefing he was given at the time was "worse than nothing".
Later, Clinton appeared in front of the House foreign affairs committee to repeat the performance. She told the committee that she had gone to unusual lengths to ensure "transparency" in the administration's handling of the fatal attack in Benghazi, Libya, despite accusations by Republicans of a cover-up.
"Let me say that we've come here and made a very open and transparent presentation," Clinton said. "I did not have to declassify the [Accountability Review Board] report. I could have kept it classified and just said 'goodbye.' That's not who I am and not what I do."
Over the course of the three-hour hearing, Clinton found herself answering a few questions repeatedly. At times the tone was confrontational, as when Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina told her she should be fired.
"Madame secretary, you let the consulate become a death trap, and that's diplomatic malpractice," Duncan said. "You're still in your job. At what point in time can our government... fire someone?"
Clinton said the point of the accountability board report was to identify, "without emotion," what had gone wrong, and that multiple department officials had lost their jobs as a result of its findings.
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