Republican Senator Susan Collins said after meeting with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that she couldn’t support Rice if she’s nominated to be secretary of state without more information about her comments on the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Libya.
The objections put Collins -- often called a moderate -- with a group of conservative lawmakers challenging Rice and opened a new line of questions about the fitness of one of President Barack Obama’s closest associates to serve as the nation’s top diplomat.
Collins said yesterday she’s troubled by what she considers parallels between the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. ambassadors in those countries “begged” for added security before the attacks when Rice was assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Collins said.
“What troubles me so much is the Benghazi attack, in many ways, echoed the attack on both embassies in 1998,” Collins of Maine told reporters after a meeting that lasted about 90 minutes. Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi, also requested added security.
Subsequent investigations concluded that the Aug. 7, 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were extensively planned by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who was killed last year in Somalia. The attacks killed 257 people and wounded more than 5,000, according to the State Department. The attack on a residential compound in Benghazi was hastily organized and opportunistic, according to U.S. intelligence officials, and killed 12 people, four of them Americans.
Security requests from American embassies are reviewed by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security division, not by regional assistant secretaries of state, and many of them are rejected on budget grounds, according to State Department officials in Republican as well as Democratic administrations.
Also, Rice has been praised for her handling of the 1998 bombings. After those attacks, she took over the State Department operations center and sent in Marines, closed other U.S. embassies in Africa and mobilized aircraft to ferry out the injured, Richard A. Clarke, the national counterterrorism coordinator in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said in an interview this month.
“When she actually has responsibility for security, she does a spectacular job,” said Clarke, now the chairman of Good Harbor Consulting in Arlington, Virginia.
Today, the Senate Homeland and Government Affairs Committee turned to other questions about the Benghazi attack in a closed session with administration officials.
Recommendations in a 2009 report by the State Department’s inspector general to construct physical barriers to defend U.S. facilities in violence-prone areas weren’t implemented at the Benghazi compound, senators said after the four-hour briefing.
“It was really disconcerting, upsetting to see how easily the terrorists broke through the gates and basically just walked in and set the facility on fire,” said Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who is the panel’s chairman.
The barriers might have helped, said Collins, the panel’s senior Republican.
“We can’t be certain they would have protected the compound completely, but they certainly would have slowed the ability of the compound to be overrun,” she said.
One focus of the panel’s investigation is on whether the Defense Department had enough people and equipment near enough to aid the embassy officials, Lieberman said.
“There has been a significant reduction in our military presence in the Mediterranean despite the fact we’re seeing growing instability and violence and increased presence of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in northern Africa,” Collins said.
Yesterday’s criticism of Rice from Collins, who votes with Democrats more often than most Republicans, threatens to complicate Obama’s decision about a successor to departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Obama has defended Rice, a confidante since his first run for president in 2008, when she was his foreign policy adviser. At a Nov. 14 news conference, the president said his UN envoy had done “exemplary work” and for senators including Arizona Republican John McCain “to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.” Yesterday, Obama praised her as “extraordinary” in remarks to reporters.
Having come to Rice’s defense, Obama risks looking weak if he nominates someone else, such as Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While Kerry would probably win Senate confirmation, as Collins said yesterday, his move could give just-defeated Republican Senator Scott Brown a shot at retaking a Bay State Senate seat.
If Obama nominates Rice and is blocked, he would have expended considerable political capital for no gain and perhaps weakened his second-term presidency from the start.
After meeting with Rice on Nov. 27, McCain and two other Republican senators said their concerns about her flawed account of the attack in Benghazi had increased. The other two senators -- Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- said they probably would place a “hold” on a vote on her nomination if Obama chose her.
Republicans led by McCain have said Rice misled the public by saying on five Sunday television talk shows on Sept. 16 that the Benghazi attack began as a “spontaneous” protest against an anti-Islamic video that was “hijacked” by militants.
Rice was in Washington yesterday and Nov. 27 to try to assuage their concerns, meeting with six senators with acting Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Morell at her side to answer their questions.
Lieberman, who often sides with McCain on foreign policy, has defended Rice, saying “it wouldn’t be fair to disqualify her based on what she said on those Sunday morning shows.”
An administration official who was briefed on the Nov. 27 meetings between Rice and senators said that while the outcome of the meeting with McCain was disappointing, it wasn’t unexpected given the senator’s stance against her.
Lieberman breaking ranks with McCain was significant, and the aim of isolating die-hard opponents was achieved while showing Rice acted in good faith with the information at her disposal, said the official, who spoke about the private talks on condition of anonymity.
Rice issued a statement Nov. 27 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.
Intelligence officials have acknowledged that 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 after members of Congress requested unclassified information about the attacks, according to a U.S. intelligence official who spoke 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.