A key Senate Republican has vowed to block the confirmation of White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan as CIA director until the Obama administration explains its initial, inaccurate statements about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
"I do not believe we should confirm anyone as director of the CIA until our questions are answered," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Tuesday.
Mr. Graham said his threat to block the nomination is "an unfortunate, yet necessary, action to get information" from an administration that has "repeatedly ignored" his questions about the aftermath of the attack. He added that his move is not directed at Mr. Brennan himself.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that it would be "unfortunate" if questions about the "highly politicized" Benghazi issue held up the confirmation of a CIA director.
"That post, as well as the position of secretary of defense, secretary of state, these are essential positions that need to be filled, if possible, without delay," he said, calling on the Senate to act "promptly."
President Obama also has nominated Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, to serve as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, to be secretary of defense.
Under Senate rules, any senator can block a nominee from being voted on — effectively halting the confirmation in its tracks. Mr. Graham's staff did not respond to requests to elaborate on his statement.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is planning to resign, is expected to discuss the Benghazi controversy before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 22. She was scheduled to address the committee last month, but she suffered a concussion and was hospitalized to treat a blood clot. Mrs. Clinton, who returned to work Monday, has promised to appear before the Senate and House foreign policy committees before leaving office.
Mr. Graham said his questions about the attack concern a set of unclassified "talking points" prepared by analysts from several U.S. agencies a few days after the assault.
The talking points, originally requested by members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, were designed to provide an unclassified summary of what U.S. intelligence knew or suspected about the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The talking points were used by Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, during a round of appearances on Sunday political talk shows on Sept. 16. She said the attack erupted after spontaneous protests over a U.S.-made, anti-Islam Internet video.
However, intelligence officials and FBI investigators by then knew that no protests had erupted in Benghazi and that an Islamic extremist militia linked to al Qaeda was involved in the attack, which unfolded in two stages over seven hours at the diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA annex.
A reference to the attackers' link to al Qaeda was deleted from the talking points during the drafting process. A U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times last year that the reference was deleted to protect "sources and methods" because the information about the al Qaeda connection came from highly classified communications intercepts.
Other changes were made to the talking points, which referred to the assault as "demonstrations" and called the attackers "extremists," not terrorists.
Some Republicans have said they think the talking points were changed because a public reference to al Qaeda would have undermined Mr. Obama's re-election campaign message that the terrorist group was being defeated after U.S. commandos killed its leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
"Who changed [the] talking points and deleted the references to al Qaeda?" Mr. Graham asked Tuesday, noting that officials have offered lawmakers different accounts of how and why the talking points had been altered.
A Dec. 31 report from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee noted that officials had assured Congress that no changes to the talking points were made for political reasons. But the report also said that a detailed timeline of the drafting process and all the changes, promised to the committee by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, had not been delivered.
Other critics have accused the administration of treating the attack like a crime, using the FBI to try to build a legal case against the terrorists, rather than striking back with deadly force at the groups thought to be involved.
"This president is committed to ensuring that those who were responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Libya be brought to justice," Mr. Carney said Tuesday. "There is an FBI-led investigation with that as its goal."
The hunt for the attackers seemed to stumble Tuesday when Tunisian authorities released the only suspect who was arrested in connection with the Benghazi assault. Authorities there held Ali Harzi for months after his arrest in Turkey. Last month, he was questioned by the FBI, reportedly about an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, as well as the Benghazi assault.
Mr. Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran who worked for Mr. Obama's election campaign in 2008, was named Monday to replace retired Army Gen. David H. Petreaus, who resigned abruptly last year after admitting to an adulterous affair with his biographer.
Mr. Brennan's nomination has been criticized by another Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has promised to pressure Mr. Brennan about the agency's use of harsh interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects during the Bush administration. Mr. Brennan oversaw the program as a senior official at the agency.
Democrats also say they have questions about Mr. Brennan's stance on the interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.
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