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In final days as Secretary of State, Clinton faces Benghazi grilling

In two of her final public appearances as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton will testify today in much-anticipated hearings about the September 11 attacks in Libya, going head to head with Republican lawmakers who have been deeply critical of the White House response to the violence -- and opening the door for controversy just days before the end of an otherwise pacific tenure.

Though her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees comes more than four months after four Americans were killed in attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, political debate surrounding the incident has been contentious from the start. Republicans were fiercely critical of how the Obama administration addressed the violence from nearly the moment the attacks became public, and a handful of GOP senators has continued to make the issue a sticking point in the days since.

Much of the political controversy has surrounded the administration's characterization of the attacks in their immediate aftermath: In early comments, White House officials -- including press secretary Jay Carney and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice -- suggested the violence might have been the result of spontaneous protests spurred by an anti-Muslim video. Those comments, which ultimately proved untrue, were guided by a set of unclassified talking points given to Rice ahead of her television appearances. Those talking points, however, were edited to cut specific references to "al Qaeda" and "terrorism" ahead of Rice's Sept. 16 television appearances.

Republicans pounced on the discrepancies between Rice's comments and others, and the ambassador ultimately clarified that there had been "no protest or demonstration in Benghazi" and that "the intelligence assessment [had] evolved" since her Sept. 16 comments. Still, the administration attempted to smooth over the criticism in a series of closed-door meetings with members of Congress. In November, acting CIA Director Mike Morrell and Rice met privately with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., specifically to address their questions about the Benghazi attacks. In that meeting, Morrell said he believed it was the FBI that removed the references, despite previous accounts stating the edits had been the work of the CIA. Morrell later retracted that statement, saying he "misspoke" and that the CIA was, in fact, responsible; meanwhile, the senators continued to rail against the White House for its inconsistencies.

While Rice has borne the political consequences of the controversy -- she had been among the top contenders to replace Clinton as secretary of state but withdrew from consideration in December due to the protracted criticism -- Clinton has so far avoided much of the fallout. She publicly accepted responsibility for both the attacks and the internal failings that led to them, and was quick to begin implementing a series of outside recommendations for ensuring that similar incidents aren't repeated going forward. Today's hearings, however, will test her abilities to stay above the fray of criticism.

According to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, Clinton will, during the hearing, answer "any remaining questions" lawmakers have on the Benghazi attacks, and outline the operational reforms she's put in motion for her expected successor, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., whose confirmation hearings are scheduled for tomorrow.

"[B]oth on the Senate side, and on the House side, members of Congress will have a chance to hear what the secretary has to say, but also to ask her any remaining questions that they have on this matter," Nuland told reporters Tuesday. "She will focus, not only on [an outside Accountability Review Board (ARB) report on what went wrong in Benghazi], but on all the work that the department has done already to implement the ARB report, and give a status on that, and an update on the work that -- that remains."

Much of that ground was covered last month, in a similar hearing with State Department Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides. Clinton had originally been slated to appear at that hearing, but canceled after suffering from both the flu, a concussion, and ultimately, a blood clot that landed her in the hospital.

But Clinton's remarks today represent the first open-door meeting in which a top administration official will face extensive questioning from Congress.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the newly-appointed ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday he expects Clinton to address internal State Department issues as well as allegations that the Libyan consulate was inadequately outfitted despite obvious threats.

"This will probably be the last time Secretary Clinton testifies before the U.S. Senate with the Kerry confirmation coming right behind," Corker said in an interview on Fox News. "So, I think there will be a lot of focus just on -- on the State Department and the systems and the internal accountabilities. And it feels to me, like a lot of this was because of just, a State Department that is stovepiped. It's almost full of sclerosis and unable to really tend to the issues of security and make decisions that need to be made in this regard."

Clinton is also likely to face direct questions about how much she knew about reported security failings in Libya leading up to the attacks, and why requests for more resources were not fulfilled.

"You know, I was in Libya right after the attack and was able to see the shock on the faces of people who we have there in Libya, and the fact that they felt like they were on a tether while they were there and not supported adequately," Corker told Fox. More broadly, he added, "there is this overall big question of how this administration is dealing with extremists and militants and the fact that they have focused so much on the Afghan-Pakistan area."

Barring a major revelation, however, her reputation is not likely to take a major hit as a result of today's hearings. And even Corker said he didn't expect any "bombshells" from her comments.

Still, he pledged that Clinton's testimony would not mark the end of the ongoing drama.

"I think this will be the beginning...of a top-to-bottom review of the State Department itself," he said.

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