Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill January 23, 2013 in Washington, DC (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(CBS News ) --In highly-anticipated testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this morning cited a "personal" commitment to improving diplomatic security abroad in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in Benghazi. But even while taking personal responsibility for the deaths of four Americans in the attacks, Clinton defended her own actions and those of her staff with regard to the response to Benghazi, and outlined the steps she says the State Department has taken to prevent future similar occurrences.
Clinton, growing emotional at times during her testimony, stressed her belief in the continued importance of U.S. diplomacy abroad, but cited the inherent risk of taking an active role in "unstable" political environments."
"We have come a long way in the past four years and We cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, our security at home is threatened," she said. "Our men and women who serve overseas understand that we accept a level of risk to protect this country we love. And they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation."
She argued, however, that diplomatic personnel "cannot work in bunkers and do their jobs. So it is our responsibility to make sure they have the resources they need and to do everything we can to reduce the risks."
As a result, Clinton said, she has worked with the State Department to swiftly to implement a series of outside recommendations aimed at ensuring that similar attacks don't reoccur. But she once again took responsibility for the personnel in Libya as well as in the State Department generally, and stressed that her commitment to protecting future diplomats stretches beyond a policy level.
"As I have said many times, I take responsibility. And nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure," she said. "For me, it's personal."
Clinton called the attack in September "one of those terrible tragic times" when the State Department's security assessment of the situation in Benghazi failed to take into account an imminent attack, and she emphasized her commitment to implementing steps to increase the department's efficacy and operational capabilities. But Clinton defended both her own response to the attacks, as well as that of the White House and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
In the aftermath of the attacks, much of the political controversy surrounded the manner in which the administration characterized them: In early comments, White House officials including 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 were ultimately not proven to be true, were guided by a set of unclassified talking points given to Rice ahead of a series of television appearances on September 16, five days after the attacks. Republicans pounced on the discrepancies between Rice's comments and others, and the sustained criticism ultimately led to Rice's decision to withdraw her name from consideration as Secretary of State.
Clinton, questioned by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., on why the administration initially gave an inaccurate version of the events that took place, grew frustrated with the focus on the White House's explanation rather than the root cause of the violence.
"We had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans? At this point what difference does it make, Senator?" she asked Johnson, visibly heated for the first time in the hearing.
"We didn't have a clear picture," she said later.