Senate Republicans voiced new worries Tuesday about misleading public statements made by United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice who met key senators on Capitol Hill as part of Obama administration efforts to stave off opposition to her likely nomination as secretary of state.
Rice is under fire for a series of misleading public statements attributing the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans to a spontaneous demonstration.
Rice’s claims during the meeting that she misspoke based on bad intelligence did not persuade key senators.
“We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn't get, considering evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate, the tragic deaths of four brave Americans, and whether Ambassador Rice was prepared or informed sufficiently in order to give the American people a correct depiction of the events that took place,” said Sen. John McCain, (R., Ariz.) after meeting Rice along with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte, (R., N.H.).
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are ready to use a potential Rice nomination to be secretary of state in negotiations with President Barack Obama over the coming defense spending cuts, according to a key Republican aide. “Certain members believe her nomination—if it happens—can be used as leverage on defense sequestration,” the aide said.
McCain, Graham, and Ayotte spoke to reporters on Capitol Hill after meeting Rice behind closed doors.
Graham said he was “more concerned” about the mishandling of the terrorist attack after the meeting.
The senator also raised the prospect of holding up a Rice nomination as Democrats did during the George W. Bush administration in blocking the appointment of John Bolton to be ambassador to the U.N. Bolton was eventually given a recess appointment to circumvent Senate approval.
“I remember the John Bolton episode pretty well,” Graham said. “Our Democratic friends felt that they didn't have the information needed to make an informed decision about Ambassador Bolton's qualifications, John Bolton to be ambassador. And Democrats dug in their heels, saying we're not going to vote, we're not going to consider this nomination until we get basic answers to our concerns. All I can say is that the concerns I have are greater today than they were before and we're not even close to getting the basic answers.”
Asked if Rice has his support for secretary of state, Graham said: “Before anybody can make an intelligent decision about promoting someone involved in Benghazi, we need to do a lot more.”
Graham is still waiting to hear about FBI interviews with survivors of the attack conducted Sept. 12 or 13: “To this date, we don't have the FBI interviews of the survivors conducted one or two days after the attack. We don't have the basic information about what was said the night of the attacks that's been shared with Congress as of this date.”
The dispute over Rice and her possible nomination has slowed administration efforts to select a new team of advisers for the second term.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to leave that position in January.
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) is known to want the State Department position and has made no public comments on the Rice affair. Kerry is also being considered for secretary of defense as a replacement for current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Graham said Rice’s television interviews gave “bad information” to the American public. “They got bad information from President Obama days after. And the question is: Should they have been giving the information at all? If you can do nothing but give bad information, isn't it better to give no information at all?”
Graham said that in addition to putting out false information, “it was unjustified to give the scenario as presented by Ambassador Rice and President Obama three weeks before an election.”
Ayotte said: “I have many more questions that need some answers.”
Rice has been harshly criticized for comments made several days after the Sept. 11 terror attack in Benghazi. She said on five Sunday television talk shows that information at the time indicated the attack was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video.
The information was false and it took the administration several weeks to correct her remarks after it was revealed the attack was a planned operation by several dozen heavily armed terrorists linked to al Qaeda. The attackers burned a U.S. diplomatic compound and damaged a nearby CIA complex.
Rice, in a statement issued Tuesday, said she and acting CIA director Michael Morrell met the senators to discuss her Sept. 16 comments.
“In the course of the meeting, we explained that the talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: There was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi,” Rice said.
Rice said the intelligence assessment of the attack “evolved” in the following days. “We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process, and the administration updated Congress and the American people as our assessments evolved” during the meeting with senators, she stated.
Critics have said the administration deliberately misled the American public prior to the U.S. elections in a bid to play down the terror connection.
Senior U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials told Congress earlier this month that the original CIA talking points drafted for Rice’s television appearances were altered to remove references to al Qaeda affiliated organizations. The talking points instead mentioned “extremists.”
One U.S. intelligence official told the Free Beacon that the omission was a deliberate attempt to obscure the al Qaeda connection. Administration officials were concerned the al Qaeda link would undermine the president’s reelection prospects. Obama said during his nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention that al Qaeda is on “the path to defeat.”
Rice echoed that theme in her public comments about the Benghazi attack, telling one interviewer that al Qaeda had been nearly defeated and that its leader Osama bin Laden had been killed.
President Obama said during his first press conference after the Nov. 6 election that Rice “had nothing to do with Benghazi” yet was dispatched by the administration to talk about the incident. He said criticism of her was “outrageous.”
Obama defended Rice and indicated he is considering her to replace Sec. of State Clinton but that a final decision had not been made.
The president also challenged McCain and Graham for opposing a potential Rice nomination. “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said Nov. 14. He also raised concerns among critics about political motives in playing down the attack in his comments at the press conference.
“[Y]ou know, we’re after an election now,” he said. “I think it is important for us to find out exactly what happened in Benghazi, and I’m happy to cooperate in any ways that Congress wants.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to say if or when a new secretary of state will be named.
“I don't have any information for you on timelines or short lists or nominees, potential or otherwise,” Carney said.
“The fact of the matter is that Ambassador Rice is enormously qualified for the position she holds and for a variety of positions in the foreign policy field if the president were to decide to nominate her for another position….”
On the issue of Rice’s Sept. 16 comments and the CIA’s talking points on Benghazi that were changed to delete references to al Qaeda, Carney said: “I would simply say that there are no unanswered questions about Ambassador Rice's appearance on Sunday shows and the talking points that she used for those appearances that were provided by the intelligence community.”
Carney said the unanswered questions about Benghazi relate to what happened, who was behind the attack, and what steps need to be taken to prevent a repeat.
“As the president made clear, Ambassador Rice has no responsibility for collecting, analyzing and providing intelligence, nor does she have responsibility as the United States ambassador to the United Nations, for diplomatic security around the globe,” Carney said. “The focus on—some might say obsession—on comments made on Sunday shows seems to me, and to many, to be misplaced.”
Some supporters of Rice, who is African-American, have suggested opposition to her is based on Repubilcans’ racism.
A Senate aide dismissed the charge. “The first two African-American secretaries of state [Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice] were Republicans. So that charge is false.”
In the House, a group of 97 Republican members wrote to Obama Nov. 19 urging him not to pick Rice for secretary of state.
The lawmakers said Rice’s Sept. 16 comments “caused irreparable damage to her credibility both at home and around the world.”
“Ambassador Rice is widely viewed as having either willfully or incompetently misled the American public in the Benghazi matter,” the lawmakers said.
“We believe that making her the face of U.S. foreign policy in your second term would greatly undermine your desire to improve U.S. relations with the world and continue to build trust with the American people.”
The House members said numerous requests to the administration to answer questions about the handling of the Benghazi affair have not been answered.