President Barack Obama led a solemn tribute on Friday to America's slain ambassador to Libya and three diplomatic aides as their remains arrived on U.S. soil days after the bloody attack that claimed their lives. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also honored the fallen, blending evident anguish with grim determination as she delivered a stern warning to Middle East leaders.
The president, speaking to silent mourners in a cavernous hangar at Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington, D.C., said, "Even as voices of suspicion and mistrust seek to divide countries and cultures from one another, the United States of America will never retreat from the world. Even in our grief, we will be resolute."
Obama spoke after Clinton addressed a crowd of mourners including Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, and families of the deceased: Ambassador Chris Stevens, Information Management Officer Sean Smith and security agents Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. The four were killed in an attack on the American Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Tuesday.
Clinton deftly wove in personal details. There was Sean Smith, a passionate gamer mourned not just by his wife and children, Heather and Nathan, but also online by the "countless competitors, collaborators and gamers who shared his passion"; Tyrone Woods, known to most as "Rone," a two-decade veteran of the Navy SEALs turned registered nurse and paramedic; Glen "Bub" Doherty, another former SEAL and paramedic who left behind a wife and three children—including one born just a few months ago. And there was Chris Stevens, who "won friends for the United States in far-flung places."
Clinton added that Stevens "made those people's hopes his own [and now] we will wipe away our tears, stiffen our spines, and face the future undaunted.
"The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob. Reasonable people and responsible leaders in these countries need to do everything they can to restore security and hold accountable those behind these violent acts," Clinton warned.
"And we will, under the president's leadership, keep taking steps to protect our personnel around the world," she said.
After they spoke, the Marine Band struck up first the national anthem and then "America the Beautiful," their strains filling the hangar as teams of seven Marines in dress uniforms eased the four flag-draped caskets into matching black hearses.
The somber ceremony came after Panetta briefed senators on angry unrest in the Muslim world that has propelled crowds against the outer walls of American diplomatic missions from North Africa to the Mideast and Asia.
Lawmakers emerging from the closed-door briefing described the onslaught as anything but a spontaneous display of religious-themed rage at an anti-Islam film on the Internet—a movie the White House has been blaming for the spike in violence.
"I think it was a planned, premeditated attack," Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said, according to Roll Call, the newspaper that covers Congress. But he said he did not know who carried out the attack.
"People don't go to demonstrate and carry RPGs and automatic weapons," sad Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on Levin's committee. "This was not a 'mob' action [or] a group of protesters."
McCain said it was too soon to "indict our intelligence community," but strongly suggested there had been a "failure" to detect the danger and act on it—but allowed that it could have been "one of those things that probably couldn't have been prevented."
Briefing reporters at the White House almost exactly at the same moment, press secretary Jay Carney declared that "we have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack."
"The cause of the unrest was a video, and that continues today, as you know, as we anticipated. And it may continue for some time," he said, referring to the Internet film.
Asked repeatedly whether the violence might have other causes—unhappiness at the way the Obama administration has handled the "Arab Spring," for instance, or U.S. policy in general—Carney replied, "We obviously are not polling protesters to find out what their motivations are."
And the spokesman suggested that criticisms of Obama's handling of foreign policy should wait for another day. "Now is a time when Americans should be coming together," Carney said.
"This is a time when it's in the best interests of the country to focus on the four personnel, the four Americans that we lost in Libya and who are returning home today, and on the measures that we need to take as a nation to deal with the unrest in the region, and deal with the security of our diplomatic facilities and personnel abroad," he said.
"There is certainly ample time and appropriate times to debate foreign policy approaches," Carney added. "We're very proud of the president's record on foreign policy and are happy to make the case at the appropriate time."