Republicans shot down Democratic charges that ongoing criticism of U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice is couched in racism or sexism, and pressed President Obama for more answers on the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, as partisan battle lines hardened Wednesday over the incident and its aftermath.
“The only color I’m worried about when it comes to Benghazi is red — blood red — the death of four Americans,” the South Carolina Republican said on “Fox and Friends.” “When you can’t answer the question, you attack the questioner.”
Mrs. Rice, who has emerged as a prime focus of the Benghazi investigation on Capitol Hill, spoke out herself Wednesday for the first time on the topic since appearing on a string of Sunday talk shows immediately after the attack.
On those shows, saying she was speaking on the basis of the best intelligence at the time, she downplayed suggestions that the strike on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a premeditated terrorist attack by elements linked to al Qaeda. She also tied the attack, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, to an anti-Islam video.
Republicans’ full-blown leap into the fray indicates that questions about Mrs. Rice and her potential nomination as secretary of state will not dissipate soon. Mr. Graham and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, have pledged to try to block any nomination, saying her misleading characterization in the days after the incident points to questions about her competence and trustworthiness, not of her race or gender.
“[She] told a story, based on a video, that led to the death of the Americans, and that story was not based on any intelligence that we possess,” Mr. Graham said Wednesday on Fox News Radio’s “Kilmeade and Friends.” “So somebody made this story up, and if she had access to the true intelligence and didn’t check it, I think that is incompetence on her part. I don’t think any senior official of any administration should go on national television and assure the American people that the deaths of four Americans can be explained by the following if they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Speaking to reporters Wednesday outside the U.N. Security Council, Mrs. Rice did not blame race or sex for the furor. But she did say that while she respects Mr. McCain, “some of the statements he’s made about me have been unfounded. But I look forward to having the opportunity at the appropriate time to discuss all of this with him.”
Mr. Graham’s office released a letter Wednesday that he wrote to President Obama, dated Nov. 20, with about a dozen specific questions about the attack. Among those questions are why Mrs. Rice, who was not involved in Benghazi, was chosen to explain it to the public instead of someone with firsthand knowledge of the consulate or the administration’s response when it was under attack.
“The American people deserve answers to what actions you and members of your Administration took before, during, and after the Benghazi attack,” Mr. Graham wrote. “I am committed to finding out the truth and working to ensure a debacle like Benghazi does not happen again.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the letter Wednesday, but the president defended Mrs. Rice at a news conference last week, inviting critics, such as Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, to “go after me.”
He also revealed that it was the White House that sent Mrs. Rice to the talk shows and said she relayed the best available intelligence at the time. It was later revealed that the office of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper deleted information about al Qaeda and terrorism from the talking points given to other administration officials shortly after the attack, deciding that the information was too tenuous to cite publicly. Since then, the administration has acknowledged that the two-pronged assault was in fact a terrorist attack.
Mrs. Rice repeated that claim Wednesday, saying she had “relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community” and had “made clear that the information was preliminary, and that our investigations would give us the definitive answers.”
Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia joined the Democratic chorus of defense Wednesday, calling the attacks on Mrs. Rice “misguided and wholly inappropriate” and labeling them a distraction from important international security concerns.
“Regarding her statements following the Benghazi attack, Ambassador Rice simply relayed the assessments given to her by the intelligence community at that time,” Mr. Moran said. “She did nothing less than her duty, as has been made clear in the intervening weeks by the testimony of former director of the CIA David Petraeus.”
Mr. Graham made clear Wednesday that Mrs. Rice has not been the sole recipient of his broadsides, pointing out on the radio show that he asked Mr. Clapper to resign in March because he lacked confidence in his ability to handle national security, and he asked counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan to resign “when he said that a 20 percent recidivism rate coming out of Gitmo was acceptable,” a reference to the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I think it’s a good thing for people of color and women to be appointed to the highest level of our government, because in the past they couldn’t be,” Mr. Graham said. “I think it would be a terrible thing in America if you couldn’t question and challenge what they did in their jobs.”
Rep. James E. Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, hinted Tuesday that there are racial undertones to criticism of Mrs. Rice.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, Ohio Democrat and incoming chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has made similar comments.
“It is a shame that anytime something goes wrong, they pick on women and minorities,” she said. “I have a real issue with that.”
Rep. Michael C. Burgess of Texas, one of 97 House Republicans who signed a letter to Mr. Obama sent this week opposing Mrs. Rice’s possible nomination for secretary of state, called Mr. Clyburn’s comments “absolutely false.”
“I don’t know where … Rep. Clyburn gets that, his information,” Mr. Burgess said Wednesday on CNN’s “Starting Point.” “I will just tell you he is factually incorrect.”