Republican senators said Tuesday that they have even more questions about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after meeting with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice, who has become a lightning rod for criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the attack.
“I want to say that I’m more troubled today,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said after she and fellow Republicans Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina met with Mrs. Rice for an hour Tuesday morning behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.
Mr. McCain, who has questioned Mrs. Rice’s public characterization of the attack as the result of “spontaneous” protests and not terrorism days after the military-style assault, said: “I am significantly troubled by many of the answers we got, and some we didn’t get.”
Accompanied by acting CIA Director Michael J. Morell, Mrs. Rice has scheduled meetings with Republican lawmakers this week in an apparent attempt to assuage opposition to her possible nomination as the next head of the State Department.
On Wednesday, Rice was expected to meet with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
“We’ll see and we’re going to sit down and talk to her,” Corker told The Associated Press. “She always delivers the party line, the company line, whatever the talking points are. I think most of us hold the secretary of state and secretary of treasury to a whole different level. We understand that they’re going to support the administration, but we also want to know that they are independent enough, when administration is off-base, that they are putting pressure. I think that’s what worries me most about Rice.”
In a statement issued Tuesday by the State Department, Mrs. Rice said she had “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” against the video.
Criticism has focused on the administration’s varying assessments about the attack and its reasons for changing its accounts of what occurred in the attack, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Polling shows that 40 percent of Americans think the administration’s use of inaccurate statements was an attempt to mislead the public.
President Obama reportedly is considering Mrs. Rice, as well as Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she wants to step down.
The three senators, all members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have been the most vocal critics of Mrs. Rice’s comments on Sunday political talk shows five days after the attack.
Republicans have accused her of playing down any terrorist or al Qaeda connection to the attack in order for the administration to maintain a positive image on foreign affairs before the presidential election.
Mrs. Rice has said she based her comments on tentative and inaccurate U.S. intelligence assessments that the military-style assault on the U.S. Consulate and a nearby CIA facility appeared to be spontaneous, inspired by protests across the Arab world against an anti-Islam video made in the United States.
‘Every drop of Kool-Aid’
“As is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved” since, she said in her State Department-issued statement Tuesday. “We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the Administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process,” she said.
“I made clear that the information was preliminary and that our investigations would give us the definitive answers,” Mrs. Rice told reporters last week, adding that officials “worked in good faith to provide the best assessment based on the information available” at the time.