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.
But Republicans have charged that she went beyond the talking points to help bolster the Obama presidential campaign’s case that al Qaeda was decimated.
“If you don’t know what happened, just say you don’t know what happened,” Mr. Graham said Tuesday. “You can say, ‘I don’t want to give bad information.’”
“It was unjustified to give the scenario as presented by Ambassador Rice and President Obama three weeks before an election,” Mr. Graham added.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first of several Mrs. Rice has requested with key Republican senators.
On Wednesday, she is slated to meet with Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is in line to be the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would hold confirmation hearings for secretary of state nominees.
On Tuesday, Mr. Corker said he had concerns about Mrs. Rice’s independence.
“I think she is very likable, I really do, but you know, she always reminds me of someone who has had every drop of Kool-Aid,” he said.
He stressed that he was keeping an open mind ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.
“I am going to give her a fair hearing, and it could be that she’s an incredibly independent person that I never knew,” he added.
Who changed what?
Democrats leapt Tuesday to Mrs. Rice’s defense.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called the “personal attacks” against the ambassador “outrageous and utterly unmoored from facts and reality.”
He declared himself “shocked that senators would continue these attacks even when the evidence — including disclosures from the intelligence community about the information she presented — have made it clear that the allegations … are baseless, and that she has done absolutely nothing wrong.”
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said there were “no unanswered questions about Ambassador Rice’s appearance on Sunday shows and the talking points that she used for those appearances that were provided by the intelligence community.
“Those questions have been answered,” Mr. Carney said.
Opposition to Mrs. Rice’s possible nomination centers on the charge that the administration knew al Qaeda supporters were involved in the sophisticated two-stage attack, which targeted first the consulate and then a CIA facility nearby known as the annex, but chose not to say so for fear of undermining President Obama’s campaign narrative.
In closed-door briefings to the intelligence committees in the House and Senate before Thanksgiving, senior intelligence officials told lawmakers that a reference to al Qaeda supporters being involved in the attack had been removed from the talking points.
Instead, the attackers had been identified as “extremists,” an intelligence official told The Washington Times.
But the officials — representing all the intelligence agencies who collaborated to produce the unclassified talking points — each denied their agency had made the change, leading Republicans to conclude the edit had been made by the White House.
The change is significant, Republicans say, because Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign was promoting a narrative of U.S. success against al Qaeda, which would have been undermined by any public acknowledgment of the group’s supporters’ role in the attack.
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 accurately reported.
‘Many more questions’
Republicans say that, by the time Mrs. Rice appeared on television five days after the attack, the involvement of al Qaeda supporters in the Libyan Ansar al-Shariah militia had been widely reported by the news media.
“It is clear that the information she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video. It was not,” Mr. McCain said Tuesday.
“It’s certainly clear from the beginning that we knew that those with ties to al Qaeda were involved in the attack,” Mrs. Ayotte said. “I have many more questions that need to be answered.”
Polling data released Tuesday suggests she is not alone.
Forty percent of Americans say they think the inaccurate statements that Mrs. Rice and other officials initially made about the attack “were an attempt to deliberately mislead the public,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. Fifty-four percent “think those inaccurate statements reflected what the White House believed to be true at the time.”
CNN commissioned ORC to gauge public opinion about the Obama administration’s handling of and response to the attack. The Nov. 16-18 survey sampled 1,023 adult Americans by telephone. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.