Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Three Republican U.S. senators said after meeting with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that their concerns have increased over her flawed account of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get” about whether Rice knew the Sept. 11 attack at the compound was related to terrorism, Senator John McCain of Arizona told reporters yesterday. “It was clear the information that she gave the American people was incorrect.”
While Rice had said she looked forward to clearing up matters with McCain, her visit to the Capitol fueled a fresh round of Republican criticism of her judgment and of the prospect that President Barack Obama may name her to succeed the departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Republicans led by McCain have said Rice misled the public by saying on five Sunday television talk shows on Sept. 16 that the attack in Benghazi five days earlier that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans unfolded from a “spontaneous” demonstration against an anti-Islamic video that was “hijacked” by militants.
Not all of McCain’s usual allies joined him in criticizing Rice. Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent who regularly sides with McCain on foreign policy issues, said yesterday that “it wouldn’t be fair to disqualify her based on what she said on those Sunday morning shows.” A number of Republican senators declined to comment or said it was premature to pass judgment.
The two senators who attended the meeting with McCain -- Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- said they left the sessions more troubled.
“Bottom line, I’m more concerned now than I was before” about Rice’s remarks, Graham said. He said much more would need to be learned “before anybody can make a decision about promoting someone involved in Benghazi.”
After the session, in which she was joined by acting CIA Director Michael Morell, Rice issued a statement saying she didn’t intentionally provide misleading information during her television appearances.
“We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process, and the administration updated Congress and the American people as our assessments evolved,” she said in the statement.
Obama has defended Rice, a close confidante since his first run for president in 2008, when she was his foreign policy adviser. At a Nov. 14 news conference, Obama said his UN envoy had done “exemplary work” and for senators including McCain “to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
“She said things that at the time she thought were accurate but that weren’t accurate,” Lieberman of Connecticut, who is retiring, said after a separate meeting with Rice and Morell. “She made clear today she was just following the intelligence community, and when they changed what they told her wasn’t true, she changed what she was saying.”
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is in line to take over from McCain in January as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Nov. 26 that he thought Rice may have been used by the administration to spread a misleading account.
Yesterday, after meeting with Rice, Inhofe said he’d changed his mind because she “willingly misled the American public” and failed to acknowledge until now that her account “was deeply and fundamentally flawed. Those are the reasons I maintain my position that makes her an unfit replacement for Secretary Clinton.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky didn’t respond yesterday when reporters asked a question about Rice.
“She hasn’t been nominated for anything so he hasn’t commented on her nomination,” Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said in an e-mail.
Rice said in her statement after her session with McCain, Graham and Ayotte that “in the course of the meeting, we 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. While we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved.”
Intelligence officials have previously acknowledged there was no spontaneous protest. Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said Sept. 28 that the intelligence community had revised its assessment “to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
The “talking points” used by Rice in her television appearances were written on request so that members of Congress and administration officials could say something preliminary -- and unclassified -- about the attacks if needed, according to a U.S. intelligence official who spoke yesterday on condition of anonymity. While never meant to be definitive, the account reflected early indications of extremist involvement, the official said.
Intelligence officials have said they dropped references to possible al-Qaeda connections to the attack from that initial account to protect intelligence sources, not the president’s re-election campaign.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the focus by Rice’s critics on her televised comments borders on, “some might say, obsession” and is “misplaced.”
“There are no unanswered questions” about Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows and her talking points, he told reporters yesterday. The outstanding questions are who was responsible for the deaths and how to ensure there isn’t a similar event in the future, he said.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is in line to become top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next year, told reporters he will meet with Rice today.
“She always reminds me of somebody who has had every drop of Kool-Aid, always espousing 1000 percent whatever point of view the administration is putting forth,” Corker told reporters yesterday, even as he said he was keeping an open mind about her.
Senator Susan Collins, who also plans to meet with Rice today, also called it premature to draw conclusions on Rice’s role. Still, the Maine Republican said yesterday that she was troubled Rice went on the talk shows and Clinton didn’t.
“It’s highly significant that Hillary Clinton wasn’t the person on these shows making those points in a highly politicized way and at the height of a political campaign,” Collins told reporters. “It troubles me that Susan Rice was willing to take on that role.”
Rice, who didn’t speak with reporters after her meetings yesterday, told reporters in New York on Nov. 21 that some of McCain’s statements “have been unfounded, but I look forward to having the opportunity at the appropriate time to discuss all of this with him. I have great respect for Senator McCain and his service to our country.”
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