WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's pre-election bid to shoulder blame over the deadly terror attack in Libya failed to silence GOP criticism that President Barack Obama is not protecting U.S. diplomats overseas.
Her written statement was sure to re-emerge as a prominent issue in Tuesday's second debate between Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney. And it could have long-term ramifications given the persistent speculation that Clinton might run for president in four years' time or stay in public life.
In her statement, Clinton accepted responsibility for the safety of the State Department's staff and diplomatic missions. It was quickly brushed aside by leading Republicans.
By becoming the first top administration official to assume blame for the attack last month on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, she sought to take the heat off Obama for the worst debacle at a U.S. embassy or consulate overseas in more than a decade.
But her message left several lingering questions unanswered, such as whether the attack on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 occurred because of intelligence failures and why administration officials insisted for days afterward that the violence stemmed from protests against an American-made video ridiculing Islam.
"I take responsibility," Clinton said, reiterating comments she made in a television interview late Monday. "I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world (at) 275 posts."
Clinton's remarks may have been intentionally vague. Neither in her interviews or her statement does she spell out what exactly she assumes responsibility for, a tactic that may have been employed to avoid culpability for specific failings or tasks strictly outside her control.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton "was extremely clear what she takes responsibility for, which is the operation of this department, all of the men and women here."
But that assessment offered nothing definitive about intelligence that may have been used to make security decisions before the attack or the administration's initial accounting of the incident as the byproduct of angry protests. The administration since has referred to a well-coordinated terrorist attack.
The intelligence may have come from the CIA or other agencies beyond Clinton's reach; the post-attack messaging likely would have been coordinated by the administration as a whole - especially after Romney attacked an independent statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on the day of the Libya attack.
The Benghazi attack has turned deeply political even within the State Department, with Clinton turning message management over to one of her most trusted aides, Philippe Reines.
Reines, a veteran of Clinton's Senate days and presidential campaign, set up a separate crisis management team that has operated, largely in secrecy, from an office on the ground floor of the department's headquarters. It has focused on preparations for last week's congressional hearing and the department's internal investigation.
Clinton, meanwhile, has been largely shielded from the Benghazi fallout. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was tasked five days after the attack with presenting it as a protest gone awry, and Clinton conspicuously avoided questioning as that account unraveled.
Even in Clinton's own department, officials have been left in the dark by some of the maneuvering. Some say privately that they see Clinton's gesture less as a case of her falling on her sword for the administration, but presenting herself as the statesman who has accepted her part in any failure. By doing so, they said, she is winning praise from some Republicans and taking herself out of the blame game she said in her statement that she wanted to avoid.