Former State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland faced tough questions from senators on Thursday about her role in the White House’s efforts to alter public talking points about the Sept. 11, 2012, terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Nuland faced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ahead of a confirmation vote on her nomination as the next assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, a promotion that critics say Nuland does not deserve.
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Nuland faced criticism from Republican lawmakers for her behind-the-scenes efforts to erase al Qaeda references from the White House talking points that were issued in the wake of the attacks.
Some of her fiercest critics alleged a cover-up, a charge Nuland vehemently denied and defended herself against during the hearings.
"Unfortunately, there are still quite a few questions remaining" about Benghazi and the administration’s initial response to the attacks, Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) said during a question period. "The American people deserve the truth, this body deserves the truth."
"Do you believe in your role representing the U.S. government that the American people deserve the truth out of members of the administration?" Johnson asked, adding that it is "pretty remarkable how sanitized" the final talking points were.
Nuland made it clear that she was not in a policy position at the time and was chiefly concerned with keeping the administration’s public remarks consistent.
"I was not in a policy role in this job. I was in a communications role," Nuland said, explaining that she was in charge of reviewing talking points that were to be sent to members of Congress, not Ambassador Susan Rice, who went on television the Sunday after the attacks to falsely claim they were the result of a protest.
"I never edited these talking points or made changes," Nuland maintained.
Her recommended changes were aimed at ensuring that the State Department delivered a consistent public message.
"When I saw these talking points on Friday night, … they indicated a significant evolution beyond what we had been saying at noon," Nuland said. "With regard to consistency, it struck me as strange we were giving talking points to the House that went considerably further than what we in the administration were saying."
Nuland came under fire for appearing to assert in a series of leaked emails that certain pieces of information should be withheld in order to protect the State Department from criticism.
Nuland explained that she was instructed by her superiors to be vague about what precisely had taken place.
"I had been under very tight guidance that we must do and say nothing that might prejudice the FBI investigation into the attacks," she said.
Nuland also felt that the talking points revealed misleading information.
She pushed to remove references to Ansar al-Sharia, the al Qaeda affiliated group responsible for the attack as well as information about the CIA’s advanced warnings about the attack because the details presented only a partial piece of the puzzle, she said.
"They struck me as a partial rendering of some of the background behind the situation and I was concerned giving them out this way would encourage members of Congress and the public to draw inaccurate conclusions about our respective agency’s role in the entirety of the" situation, Nuland said.
Pushed by Johnson to explain why she objected to revealing information that turned out to be factually accurate, Nuland said her "concern was this was not an accurate representation of the picture."
"I was the conveyor of agreed policy and agreed decision making about what we could say publicly," Nuland said, maintaining that her focus was only on presenting a stable and accurate narrative to the public.
Nuland was further grilled about the talking points by Sens. James Risch (R., Idaho) and John Barrasso (R., Wyo).
"The Benghazi question is there and it hasn’t been answered," Risch said. "The administration is focused on this hiding behind the curtain of, ‘Oh we’re doing an investigation,’ and they’ve done that since day one of this."
"The American people want to know who did this," he said. "Was this a protest gone bad or a terrorist attack, which we all know it was?"
Asked by Barrasso why she objected to the mention of al Qaeda, Nuland said the information as presented painted a "mistaken and flawed" picture about who knew what and when.
Asked by Risch when exactly she knew that terrorists were responsible for storming the U.S. compound, Nuland could not recall.
"I don’t recall the precise date that we moved to being confident it was a terrorist attack," she said.
Nuland also stated that she had no contact with Rice prior to her heavily criticized television interviews on the attacks.
Nuland said she did not object to mentioning Ansar al-Sharia’s connection to the attacks in response to questions from Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.). Rather, her objection was about permitting members of Congress to reveal this information when other officials could not.
"My concerns were … mainly that I did understand why members of Congress could say more about it that we in the administration," Nuland responded.