Democrats pushed back Sunday against criticism of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice for her comments about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, saying Republicans are wasting time and using Mrs. Rice as a scapegoat.
Republicans pressed their charges that Mrs. Rice had given politically convenient answers, rather than statements based on the latest intelligence, when she attributed the attack to "spontaneous" protests against an anti-Islam video made in the U.S. and not terrorists in five TV talk show appearances Sept. 16.
"If you really understand what went on, it is terribly unfair that [Mrs. Rice] should be the scapegoat for this, when really the failures ought to be at the lap of the head of the intelligence community," Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet The Press."
Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, said on CNN’s "State of the Union," "Why are we spending all this time [on this matter]?"
Mr. Warner, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, noted that Mrs. Rice, who reportedly is being considered to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has not yet been nominated.
[Corrected paragraph:] He said, "What we ought to be looking at is, what happened in Benghazi [and] how do we make sure it never happens"
Congressional panels are looking into the Obama administration’s response to requests for more security at the Benghazi compound before the attack and to the assault itself, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
"Somebody was absolutely negligent in not providing the right security for the ambassador and the employees that lost their lives, and somebody should be held accountable for that," Rep. Michael Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Republicans have accused administration officials — and Mrs. Rice in particular — of downplaying the incident days later to mislead the public and preserve a key theme in President Obama’s re-election campaign, namely, that al Qaeda had been decimated. She met with several Republican senators last week in an unsuccessful attempt to quell concerns about her public statements.
Mrs. Rice and her supporters have argued that she had relied on unclassified "talking points" prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies that were based on tentative and inaccurate assessments, including that there had been a protest outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, before the assault on the compound by dozens of heavily armed extremists.
"The talking points came from the intelligence community, yet you don’t hear one criticism for [then-CIA Director] David H. Petraeus. It was his shop that produced the talking points that Susan Rice talked about. … But none of these guys will say a word about David Petraeus," Mrs. McCaskill said on "Meet the Press."
A matter of security
The issue of security at the mission and a nearby CIA annex was given renewed life last week by the revelation that the compound did not have special physical security barriers that the State Department inspector general recommended, despite widespread intelligence reports about the growing strength and boldness of Islamic extremist militias, some affiliated with al Qaeda, in Benghazi.
Mr. Rogers, the House intelligence committee chairman, said "the intelligence was correct" about the threats, although it failed to learn in advance the date and time of the attack. The mistake was in not providing adequate security or closing the building, he said on "Face the Nation."
"What went wrong was that the policy and decision-makers at the Department of State did not make the right security call, and I argue it’s gross negligence," Mr. Rogers said.
Sometime before the attack, he said, officials considered moving the CIA operation (based in a nearby annex) on-site with the consulate, but rejected the mission compound as "too insecure."
Mrs. Rice was not involved in any decisions about security at Benghazi, but she became the focus of attention after widespread reports that she soon will be nominated to succeed Mrs. Clinton, who has said she wants to step down as secretary of state.
Democrats the focus on Mrs. Rice is a waste of time until she is nominated for the post.
"What I find remarkable is, the president hasn't even nominated anyone yet," Mr. Warner said on the CNN program.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has said she is concerned about security at other U.S. diplomatic missions in volatile areas, such as Sanaa, Yemen; and Peshawar, Pakistan.
'Not about Susan Rice'
Last week, several Republican senators openly threatened to block Mrs. Rice’s confirmation if she is nominated. But in another interview Sunday, one of her fiercest Republican critics said the issue goes well beyond her role.
"It’s not just about Susan Rice. It’s about a system that failed. The military failed. The intelligence community failed, before and during [the attack]. This is about a system designed to protect us which completely broke down," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on "Face the Nation."
Mr. Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he is troubled by the apparent inability of the U.S. military to get any help to the embattled State Department and CIA personnel as the two-stage attack unfolded over more than seven hours during the night of Sept. 11.
"Why for seven hours on Sept. 11 we could not reinforce the compound?" he said.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has said that — despite the presence of a U.S. surveillance drone flying over the scene and CIA security contractors on the ground — there was insufficient intelligence to send troops into harm’s way or authorize other military action, such as an airstrike, inside a country with which the United States is not at war.
Mr. Graham contrasted the minute-by-minute account of Mr. Obama’s role in the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which the White House made public, with its silence about the commander in chief's actions on the night of the attack.
"We don't know anything about what he did on Sept. 11," Mr. Graham said of the president. "Did the president order the military and others to come to their aid? And if he did, when did he make that order? When was he first notified?"
Mr. Obama has strongly backed Mrs. Rice, calling her "exceptional."
But the president’s public support of the embattled diplomat has led one Democrat to wonder whether the president has painted himself into a corner.
"He's on the horns of a dilemma here," former Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana said on "Fox News Sunday." "If he doesn’t nominate her, he looks weak. If he does nominate her, he has a fight on his hands, and potentially, [a] somewhat polarizing secretary of state figure."
Mr. Bayh said his best guess is that the president will "choose to go forward and try and persuade the critics" that their reservations are baseless, "that there is really no there, there."
Last week in a statement, Mrs. Rice said she had relied "solely and completely" on talking points prepared by the U.S. intelligence community.
But her belated acknowledgment that the assessment on which they were based was wrong has done nothing to mollify her critics.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mrs. Rice had read classified intelligence briefings noting that al Qaeda supporters were involved in the attack but did not mention that in her television interviews in the days afterward.
The New Hampshire Republican also said that Mrs. Rice relayed information on television that was not in the briefings, including inaccurate claims about the consulate’s security and al Qaeda’s strength in the region.
The ambassador "went beyond the talking points," by saying al Qaeda had been "decimated" and calling the security at the mission, at different points in several interviews "strong substantial and significant," Mrs. Ayotte said on CNN's "State of the Union."
Mrs. Rice’s explanations are "frankly, not supported by the record," she said.
Mr. Graham said Mrs. Rice "had told a political story designed to help the president three weeks before an election," and that he is hard-pressed to see how he might be able to support her nomination.
"I find her lacking when it comes to being the best choice for secretary of state. But this is up to the president," he said.
But the man in line to be the ranking Republican on the Senate committee that would vet her nomination said he does not think Mrs. Rice will be the nominee.
"I don’t think she’s going to be nominated," said Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I’ve told people certainly I’ll give her a fair hearing. … The underlying issue [with her confirmation] is people have seen her far more as a political person and not as a principal, and I think that’s what the White House is witnessing now."
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