- Hillary Clinton will once again take center stage Thursday to defend her actions in connection with the attacks in Benghazi
- U.S. officials were still trying to work out what happened in the attacks when the political recriminations erupted in Washington
(CNN)It's Hillary Clinton versus the Republicans on Benghazi -- again.
The former secretary of state will once again take center stage Thursday, when she testifies at 10 a.m. in a hearing that could last all day, to defend her actions in connection with the attacks in the Libyan city that left four Americans dead.
Three years, seven investigations and thousands of pages of emails have not dampened the political drama surrounding the murky events that day and the role that Clinton played in handling them.
The marathon, televised grilling by the Republican-led Select Committee on Benghazi that now awaits the Democratic presidential front-runner is the culmination of a lengthy political potboiler born in the U.S. intervention in the North African nation in 2011 and nurtured in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol.
Death of an ambassador
Chris Stevens did not believe in hiding behind the walls of the concrete fortresses that now pass for American embassies worldwide. That belief cost him his life.
The 52-year-old U.S ambassador to Tripoli was in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012, with full knowledge that security was fragile. He was there because he hoped to build ties with local tribes and rebels that could help bring democracy and stability to Libya.
But at 9:42 p.m., a State Department consular building in the city came under attack by a mob and that included some armed men. The crowd, which quickly grew, lit fires and ransacked the compound. One State Department employee, information management officer Sean Smith, died at the compound, likely from smoke inhalation.
U.S. officials frantically looking for Stevens had no news until his lifeless body turned up at a hospital in Benghazi later in the evening. It is believed he died after taking refuge in a safe room in the consular building.
Two other Americans, Glen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods, both CIA contractors, died in a subsequent mortar attack in the early hours of September 12 at an agency annex nearby.
American officials were still trying to work out what happened in Benghazi when the political recriminations erupted back in Washington.
Keen to debunk Obama's claims in a tight re-election race that he had choked off al Qaeda and terrorism threats, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney waded in with a statement critical of the administration's handling of the crisis.
These were the first shots of a political battle that would reverberate throughout the campaign. At one point, they provoked a heated clash in a presidential debate in which Obama lashed out at Romney's claim that he had been slow to brand the attack terrorism.
The expanding political argument would also eventually scuttle the hopes of Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, of succeeding Clinton as secretary of state.
Rice went on television days after the attack and recited talking points that said the attacks grew out of a spontaneous protest inspired by demonstrations in Cairo about an anti-Muslim YouTube video produced in the United States.
Republicans quickly claimed Rice had tried to mislead Americans about the cause of the attacks in her TV appearances -- accusing her and the administration more broadly of suppressing information that suggested the assault was the product of an organized terrorist attempt to target the consulate, which could have undermined the Obama campaign's argument that the President had successfully fought terror.
But Obama aides denied and later tried to disprove the charge by releasing 100 pages of emails showing the process of amending the talking points in exchanges between CIA officers, who had been trying to determine the chain of events in Libya, and top administration officials.
The emails showed that CIA officers were primarily responsible for writing the account used by Rice, and that they and not political professionals in the White House were mostly responsible for inclusions and omissions.
Clinton put on the defensive
In December 2012, after the election, a Clinton-commissioned Independent Benghazi Accountability Review Board, co-chaired by former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and the ex-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, issued 29 recommendations to the State Department on improving security and defending U.S. posts abroad, especially those like Benghazi that were deemed high risk.
The evolving political furor dragged in Clinton herself, who testified on Capitol Hill during the final days of her tenure at the State Department. She took responsibility for the attacks and pledged to study the lessons about how best to protect American diplomats abroad.
She also clashed with Republicans on the question of whether the attacks were motivated by the anti-Muslim video and a result of spontaneous protests or rather organized by a terrorist group.
"The fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they would go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?" she asked, frustrated at the Republican assault.
That last sentence has since been used by the GOP to portray Clinton as unsympathetic to those killed in Benghazi or obstructionist in investigations into exactly what caused the attacks.
A conservative cause
In the ensuing months, Benghazi became a cause celebre among conservatives and partisan media outlets, as genuine questions about the administration's handling of the affair became entwined with conspiracy theories about the role of Clinton, who seemed to be more and more likely to run in 2016.
One of the most potent accusations leveled by the GOP was that Clinton or someone reporting to her ordered a U.S. security team in Tripoli to "stand down" from an attempt to travel to Benghazi to rescue the Americans under siege.
Clinton, however, has strongly denied the assertion and a report by the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2014 found no such order was issued.
Republicans have also demanded details on what exactly Obama was doing on the night of the attacks and what U.S. military assets were in the vicinity of Libya that could have been used to help Stevens and his colleagues.
In 2014, House Speaker John Boehner, accusing the administration of "obstructing the truth" about Benghazi and withholding documents, announced a new select committee to investigate the attacks -- paving the way for Clinton's eventual path to Thursday's hearing and ensuring Benghazi would feature in yet another presidential election campaign.
Capitol Hill showdown
It remains unclear whether the select committee has come up with any new information about what happened in Benghazi. But it's responsible for the biggest bombshell of the multiyear investigations: Its staffers discovered that the former secretary of state used a private email server based in her home in New York during her tenure as secretary of state.
That issue, which has dogged Clinton for months and hurt her poll numbers, has triggered an FBI investigation into whether classified information was compromised on the system.
The Clinton camp has said the former secretary of state is happy to testify before the select committee Thursday. But her campaign questions the need for such a hearing at all after seven congressional investigations already considered Benghazi -- contending that there is nothing left to discover.
The fact-checking organization Politifact examined the multiple investigations and said Clinton was correct to say there had been seven investigations by Senate and House Committees. The inquiries variously found that the attacks were preventable, that the Libya facilities had faced a high risk of attack, and that the State Department had inadequately addressed security fears in the run-up to September 2012.
Clinton, however, has not been personally blamed for the failings, and she has repeatedly said security issues were dealt with by career Foreign Service officials who should not be susceptible to interference by the politically appointed secretary of state. Republicans see that position as an evasion of responsibility.
Four State Department officials responsible for embassy security resigned after the publication of the Pickering report.
Clinton told CNN's Jake Tapper last week that she would do her best to answer the committee's questions Thursday but that "I don't know that I have very much to add."
Reverberations for 2016?
In effect, the hearing has become one of the most anticipated set piece moments in the 2016 presidential race.
Clinton has insisted all along that the committee is nothing less than a hyper-partisan attempt to damage her presidential campaign.
"I think it's pretty clear that whatever they might've thought they were doing, they ended up becoming a partisan arm of the Republican National Committee," Clinton told Tapper.
Clinton's aides have made that argument for months, but it didn't really hit home until several Republicans gift-wrapped the attack line for Clinton.
First, Senate Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a televised interview pointed out that the panel had driven down Clinton's poll numbers. His words not only delighted Democrats but also helped derail his campaign to become House speaker.
And after a former committee staffer told Tapper that political motivations were clouding the inquiry and another GOP lawmaker also criticized it, the head of the committee, Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, was furious.
"I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends, shut up talking about things that you don't know anything about. And unless you're on the committee, you have no idea what we've done, why we've done it and what new facts we have found," Gowdy said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The latest political exchanges appear to have Clinton, already boosted by a strong debate performance last week, in the driver's seat heading into the hearing.
Her goal will be to avoid stumbles, keep her cool and cement her narrative that the hearing is nothing more than a cheap partisan extension of the GOP presidential campaign.
For Gowdy, who will be judged in the court of wider public opinion rather than just by the audience of conservative media and voters who have long fixated on Benghazi, the task is to prove that his committee is credible and not the shallow political operation Clinton claims it to be.
The former secretary of state will likely also come prepared for uncomfortable questions about her leading role in the Libyan intervention, and what its chaotic aftermath says about her tenure at the State Department and suitability to serve as commander in chief. And the question of the tens of thousands of emails on the server that she says were private and have been destroyed could fuel GOP claims that she is being less than forthcoming with the truth.
It should make for compelling political theater on Thursday.