President Obama said Wednesday that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice has been "extraordinary" as he sought to boost the embattled diplomat's prospects on Capitol Hill, where she has been trying to smooth the way for a possible promotion to secretary of state but has stumbled in meetings with key Republican senators.
After a morning meeting with Mrs. Rice, Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican and moderate who is considered a key swing vote, said she has too many unanswered questions about events surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to back Mrs. Rice if she is nominated.
Sen. Bob Corker, who will become the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would vet Mrs. Rice, refused to give his blessing. He said he would wait to see if Mr. Obama submits the nomination.
The White House deployed Mrs. Rice to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday to meet with key Republicans, but has yet to sway any of them.
Asked about her prospects, Mr. Obama told reporters he still has faith in her.
"Susan Rice is extraordinary. I couldn't be prouder of the job that she's done as the [ambassador]," he said after a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
Congress has been investigating what went wrong in the assault on the consulate and whether Mrs. Rice misled the country. The ambassador initially blamed the attack on spontaneous protests by Muslims angered by an anti-Islam video, rather than terrorists who had planned the military-style assault that the administration now acknowledges.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack, which occurred on the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
A vote for more security
In the first legislative action on the matter, the Senate voted Wednesday to push the administration to add Marine security forces to more diplomatic posts around the globe and to re-evaluate the rules of engagement. The legislation was attached to the annual defense policy bill, which the Senate began debating this week.
Under the amendment, adopted by voice vote, the Senate asked the Obama administration to study the security risks at U.S. diplomatic posts and determine which ones would benefit from having Marines in place.
Right now, of the 285 missions that the State Department operates, 126 of them have no Marine protection – including some in places where al Qaeda and its affiliates are increasingly active.
The amendment attempts to resist decisions made in the run-up to the attack on the consulate, where no Marines were stationed despite warnings of security threats in Benghazi.
"Would their presence have made a difference and saved the lives of our heroic ambassador and his security personnel?" said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who sponsored the amendment. "I think I know the answer to that question and so do the American people."
Mr. McCain said the rules of engagement for Marines also need updating, since they are prevented from taking action in some cases.
Mr. McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been one of the most vocal critics of Mrs. Rice and her Sept. 16 appearances on five Sunday TV talk shows in which she said protesters, not terrorists, had attacked the State Department's Benghazi compound. His meeting with her Tuesday did not sway his opinion.
"I am significantly troubled by many of the answers we got, and some we didn't get," he said Tuesday.
Mrs. Rice said in a statement issued Tuesday by the State Department that 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.
"As is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved. 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.
Republicans have accused administration officials of trying to downplay the attack to preserve the Obama re-election campaign's message of the administration having decimated al Qaeda – and the so-called talking points figure largely in their criticisms.
The administration's account of what happened in Benghazi has changed several times, which officials attributed to changes to the talking points prepared by the U.S. intelligence community.
But officials representing all the intelligence agencies that collaborated to produce the unclassified talking points each denied that their agency had made the change, leading Republicans to conclude the edit had been made by the White House.
Last week, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told reporters that officials in that office had made the change, but did not explain why.
The office declined to comment to The Washington Times but said the spokesman's comments had been reported accurately.
Mrs. Rice's participation in the administration's differing accounts has soured her possible nomination to the head the State Department, a position for which Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also is being mentioned.
Mrs. Collins, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said Wednesday that she "would have to have more information" before deciding her stance on a potential replacement for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she wants to leave politics.
"It would be premature for me to reach that judgment now," Mrs. Collins said, adding that she was "troubled" by Mrs. Rice's role during the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack.
Benghazi, Kenya and Tanzania
"At the time that Ambassador Rice made these assertions, there was conflicting evidence, it's true, but we had the president of Libya saying that 50 people had been arrested, that people, terrorists from other countries had come to Libya and that the attack was premeditated and planned," the Maine Republican said. "I asked Ambassador Rice why she did not qualify her comments more in light of this contradictory reporting from the president of the country. Her answer was that she relied on our intelligence analysis. I don't understand why she would not have at least qualified her response to that question."
Mrs. Collins said the Benghazi attack "in many ways echoes" the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, when Mrs. Rice was serving as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Clinton.
"In both cases, the ambassador begged for additional security," she said. "Those requests, as in the case of Benghazi, were turned down by the State Department. I asked Ambassador Rice what her role was. She said she would have to refresh her memory and that she was not involved directly in turning down the requests."
Meanwhile, Democrats, who hold the majority in the Senate, have been spent much of the week rallying support for the U.N. ambassador.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the "obsessive focus on Ambassador Rice's appearance on a series of Sunday shows several months ago is misplaced and misguided."
"It's a shame to create a sideshow that seems, I think very clearly, to be very political out of something that really has no bearing on what happened in Benghazi," he said.
What the American people care about, Mr. Carney said, is "what happened, actually, in Benghazi, who was responsible for the deaths of four Americans, what steps we need to take to ensure that something like that doesn't happen again."
Such questions likely will be addressed by the Accountability Review Board that is probing the Benghazi attack under a cloak of secrecy at the State Department.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said the board's findings could be completed as early as mid-December. It is not known whether they will include an assessment of the comments made by Mrs. Rice days after the attack.
Shaun Waterman, Stephen Dinan and Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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