WASHINGTON -- The bitter political undercurrents surrounding the Benghazi attacks erupted Thursday with Democrats and Republicans feuding over the role of a special investigative panel while Hillary Clinton came under intense fire for her handling of the tragedy.
The panel's top Republican, Trey Gowdy, and Democrat, Elijah Cummings, began shouting and interrupting each other over what information the committee should release while Clinton sat silently in the witness chair, watching the heated exchange and nodding her agreement with Cummings.
The Democratic presidential front-runner -- who seemed collected and in command for the first phase of the hearing -- mounted a passionate defense of her response to the violence, telling the Republicans arrayed against her that she had lost more sleep over the deaths of four Americans in Libya than anyone else on the panel.
"I would imagine I have thought more about what happened than all of you put together," she said. "I have lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been wracking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done."
But she came under repeated attack from Republicans, who didn't accept her explanations and, in some cases, version of events.
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio submitted the former secretary of state to a dramatic period of questioning when he alleged that she and other Obama administration staff tried to blame the attack on the consulate on an anti-Muslim YouTube video to avoid undercutting President Barack Obama's claims that he had crushed Al-Qaeda.
"You could live with a protest about a video, that won't hurt you, but a terror attack would," Jordan said, saying that Americans could accept, reluctantly, compatriots being killed abroad but "what they can't live with is when their government is not square with them."
Clinton rejected the claim, saying in the desperate hours after the attack on September 11, 2012, that information on the true nature of the assault on the compound by a mob was unclear.
"I am sorry that it doesn't fit your narrative congressman, I can only tell you what the facts are."
Another Republican, Rep Mike Pompeo of Kansas, tried to rile Clinton by asking why her old friend and political operative Sidney Blumenthal had been able to send her personal emails, requests for more security from U.S. staff in Libya did not reach her desk.
Throughout, Republicans maintained that the panel was not created to serve partisan ends.
Gowdy rejected Democratic claims he was leading the investigation to a pre-ordained verdict with the intention of damaging Clinton.
"There is no theory of the prosecution," Gowdy said, raising his voice.
"This is not a prosecution," he reiterated moments later. "I have reached no conclusions."
But the heated exchanges highlighted that the hearing is not only limited to an examination of Clinton's record on Benghazi but also the extent to which partisanship has shaped the investigation, with the Democratic candidates' allies repeatedly charging the GOP with politically motivated maneuvers.
In her opening statements, Clinton made a veiled reference to her campaign's contention that the Benghazi Select Committee is a sideshow meant to damage her politically, she added, "We need leadership at home to match our leadership abroad, leadership that puts national security ahead of politics and ideology."
She said she had taken "responsibility" for the deaths of the four Americans, and while still secretary of state had introduced a number of Americans to try to ensure such attacks do not happen again.
Cummings claimed the probe had wasted 17 months and $4.7 million on a partisan fishing expedition that had turned up no new evidence on the attack, which occurred when she was secretary of state.
Clinton noted that an independent Accountability Review Board that she set up as secretary had pulled no punches, unveiling 29 recommendations for improving security for U.S. diplomats overseas. She also noted that previous attacks on Americans abroad, including in 1983 on a U.S. Marines barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, had produced changes to U.S. security procedures after nonpartisan investigations by Congress.
She said that while she and Stevens knew that Benghazi was dangerous for Americans -- like many other areas of the world -- there had been no actionable threat received by U.S. intelligence agencies against the State Department facility, even on the morning of the attack.
"No one ever came to me and said we should shut down our compound in Benghazi," she said.
At the White House meanwhile, spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama was not watching the hearing. Schultz said Clinton's performance reminded him of why his boss had chosen her as secretary of state.
"This is someone who clearly cares deeply on the issues," he said. "Someone who has worked tirelessly to strengthen our relationships with our partners around the world. Someone who cares deeply about our men and women overseas at stations across the globe. And someone who when something goes wrong takes responsibility and owns up to that mistake and is happy to answer questions on however many occasions because she is being held accountable."