WASHINGTON — Republican opposition to the potential nomination of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice as secretary of state appeared to harden Tuesday after she met behind closed doors with three key Republican senators.
What was supposed to be a session to clear the air and lower tensions seemed to have had the opposite effect as Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona said they’d left their morning meeting with Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell with more questions than answers about comments she’d made in the initial aftermath of the deadly attack Sept. 11 on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
“We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get, considering evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate, the tragic deaths of four brave Americans and whether Ambassador Rice was prepared or informed sufficiently in order to give the American people a correct depiction of the events that took place,” McCain said.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said Rice’s critics had developed “an obsession” over the talking points she used on five Sunday morning talks shows five days after the attack.
Carney said that some had "focused on this for what appear to be political reasons when the issue that matters is what happened to those four Americans and who was responsible and what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
He added that "the focus on a Sunday show appearance is entirely misplaced, and it represents less interest, I think, in what happened in Benghazi than in political dynamics in Washington."
Rice has been mentioned as a possible successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who’s indicated that she won’t serve in President Barack Obama’s second term. White House officials won’t comment on whether the president intends to nominate Rice, though he’s offered a full-throated defense of his embattled U.N. ambassador.
Rice’s critics in the Senate have responded that they’d block her nomination until they got more answers on Benghazi.
“We’re not going to consider this nomination until we get basic answers to our concerns,” Graham said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he doubted that the Benghazi incident would derail a Rice nomination.
“Most Republicans are fair,” Levin said. “And when they see that she was simply using something that was produced by the consensus of the intelligence community they’re going to say, ‘Why would we hold against her if there were any statements there that were changed subsequently? Why would we hold it against a consumer of that product?’ . . . It’s so fundamentally wrong to hold that against her.”
Republicans charge that Rice on the talk shows described the attack as stemming from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video and not as a terrorist operation in a deliberate bid to protect Obama’s record on terrorism in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and Information Management officer Sean Smith were killed when the consulate came under attack. Several hours later, two other Americans, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died at a CIA compound a mile away where surviving Americans from the consulate fled. Libyan officials investigating the attack told McClatchy they think that the attackers followed those who were fleeing. Doherty and Woods died from mortar rounds shot into the CIA compound.
In the hours after the attacks, Libyan guards told McClatchy there were no protests leading up to the attack and that they were unaware of the protests against an inflammatory film about Prophet Muhammad in neighboring Egypt. Instead, witnesses called the attack brazen, saying it lasted for more than two hours and overwhelmed the handful of security troops at the consulate.
In addition, State Department officials watched the attack in real time from security cameras around the consulate compound, which showed no signs of a protest beforehand.
Former CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers earlier this month that the agency had secretly assessed that al Qaida-linked gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate and CIA annex but that classified references to the terrorist group were cut from the talking points on which Rice relied on for the television interviews.
Rice and Morell told the three Republican senators Tuesday that the talking points the intelligence community provided and the initial assessment on which they were based were incorrect and that 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,” Rice said in a statement after her meeting with the senators. “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.”
A U.S. intelligence official told McClatchy that the talking points were written, upon request, so members of Congress and senior officials could say something preliminary and unclassified about the attacks, if needed. They were never meant to be definitive and it was noted that the assessment may change, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“It wasn’t until after they were used in public that analysts reconciled contradictory information about how the assault began,” the official said. “Finding the right balance between keeping the public informed and protecting sensitive information is never easy and that was true here. There was absolutely no intent to misinform.”
Rice’s explanation didn’t wash with McCain, Graham or Ayotte.
“Bottom line: I’m more concerned now than I was before that the 16 September explanation about how four Americans died in Benghazi, Libya, by Ambassador Rice, I think, does not do justice to the reality at the time, and in hindsight clearly was completely wrong,” Graham said. “I’m more convinced than ever that it was bad – it was unjustified to give the scenario as presented by Ambassador Rice and President Obama three weeks before an election.”
Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and Nancy A. Youssef in Cairo contributed to this article.