Leading Republicans reacted angrily to an admission Tuesday by President Obama’s director of national intelligence that his office scrubbed references to al Qaeda’s role in the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, from the early talking points used by top administration officials, calling it the latest sign of the administration’s bungling of the attack and its aftermath.
Sen. John McCain said the admission by intelligence sources that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper edited the talking points is stunning, because Mr. Clapper and other intelligence officials testified to Congress in closed-door hearings and “told us that they did not know who made the changes.”
“Now we have to read the answers to our questions in the media,” the Arizona Republican said. “There are many other questions that remain unanswered. But this latest episode is another reason why many of us are so frustrated with, and suspicious of, the actions of this administration when it comes to the Benghazi attack.”
The news was announced as the partisan battle intensified over U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, with Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, saying Republican critics were using racially tinged language in attempting to discredit her for her leading role in pushing the administration’s original story about the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
CBS News reported that Mr. 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.
The erroneous talking points were used by top officials, including Mrs. Rice when she appeared on political talk shows the Sunday after the attack and blamed a largely “spontaneous” protest over an anti-Islam Internet video for sparking the violence.
Her performance has hurt her credibility, and Mr. McCain said he would try to block her nomination should Mr. Obama attempt to elevate her to secretary of state.
The president angrily defended Mrs. Rice at a news conference last week, saying his critics should “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.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress are investigating why the administration rejected Stevens’ pleas for better security in the volatile country ahead of the attacks, and why it took so long for U.S. military assistance to reach the scene once the assault began. Administration critics contend the president and his aides were eager to downplay any role for al Qaeda in the attack before the Nov. 6 presidential election.
Some reports said Mrs. Rice was privy to the classified intelligence that did still include references to a potential terrorist attack, but the administration said Mrs. Rice, in her television appearances, gave out the most up-to-date information without compromising classified sources and methods.
Two months after the attack, the issue shows little sign of subsiding as new information trickles out about the administration’s handling of it.
Mr. McCain wasn’t the only one to criticize Mr. Clapper on Tuesday.
Susan Phelan, a spokeswoman for the Republican-controlled House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the revelation simply raises more questions and that it “gives a new explanation that differs significantly from information provided in testimony to the committee last week.”
Mr. Clapper’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but a spokesman told CNN that suggestions that Mrs. Rice or anyone else outside the DNI’s office altered the talking points were wrong.
“The intelligence community made substantive, analytical changes before the talking points were sent to government agency partners for their feedback,” Shawn Turner, Mr. Clapper’s spokesman, told the cable news network. “There were no substantive changes made to the talking points after they left the intelligence community.”
For now, Mrs. Rice finds herself under siege by Republicans, and Democrats are rushing to defend her.
Mr. Clyburn made his comments a day after 97 House Republicans signed a letter sent to Mr. Obama on Monday saying that Mrs. Rice is widely viewed as “having either willfully or incompetently misled the American public in the Benghazi matter” and should not be considered for a top post in a second Obama term.
Mr. Clyburn took exception to that characterization Tuesday, saying to call her wrong for pushing a misleading narrative is one thing, but to label her “incompetent” hinted at something deeper.
“These are code words,” Mr. Clyburn said on CNN’s “Starting Point.” “We heard them during the campaign. During this recent campaign, we heard [former New Hampshire Gov. John] Sununu calling our president ‘lazy,’ ‘incompetent.’ These kinds of terms that those of us — especially those of us who were born and raised in the South — we’ve been hearing these little words and phrases all of our lives and we get insulted by them.”
But Republican strategist David Winston said the U.N. ambassador’s comments on Benghazi point to her trustworthiness — a key ingredient for a Cabinet post such as secretary of state — and people would be wise not to go beyond the fact that lingering questions on Benghazi must be answered.
“In order to be able to say ‘yes’ to the nominee, for obvious reasons, [lawmakers] need to know what occurred here in some detail,” Mr. Winston said. “This is a question of, ‘How did she manage a truly critical moment?’ And this is a major incident and how she handles it is central to her qualifications. Ultimately, [the president is] going to pick theperson who is going to best execute his policy. I’m not sure I would interpret it any farther beyond that, at this point.”
Democratic strategist Paul Goldman, a former adviser to L. Douglas Wilder, the country’s first elected black governor, said injecting such racial innuendos into criticism of the president or his administration hurts the political dialogue.
“To constantly raise the race issue is quite frankly not useful and belittles Ambassador Rice,” he said. “She’s a public figure — you can criticize her if you don’t think she’s doing a good job whether she’s a woman or whether she’s an African-American without having everyone reading every little thing into it. She’s good. She can handle herself. She’s very smart, and very capable. You don’t get into the ring in a heavyweight fight if you can’t take a punch.”