McCain’s claims about Susan Rice’s comments on the Libya attack
By Glenn Kessler,
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
“Susan Rice should have known better and if she didn’t know better, she is not qualified. She should have known better. I will do everything in my power to block her from being the United States secretary of state. She has proven that she either doesn’t understand or she is not willing to accept evidence on its face. There is no doubt five days later what this attack was and for — look, I was on "Face the Nation" that Sunday. Right after her came the president of the Libyan National Assembly who said this was al-Qaeda. Everybody knew that. So she went out and told the American people something that was patently false and defied common sense.”
— Sen. John McCain, on “Fox and Friends,” Nov. 14, 2012
“When she presented the case absolutely this was a flash mob. Look at the reruns because I happened to have been there that morning.... The casual observer knew there was no demonstration. There was no demonstration, so you couldn't have known that to start with.”
— McCain, on “CBS This Morning,” Nov. 14
These are pretty tough words from the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, which were matched by a tough response from President Obama at Wednesday’s news conference. On the CBS program, McCain even suggested a select congressional committee was required to find out whether Rice was “guilty of misleading the American people.”
As a biographer of Condoleezza Rice, The Fact Checker recalls she was confirmed by a vote of 85 to 13, which were the most negative votes cast for a secretary of state in 180 years. (One of those “no” votes was from John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who is vying with Susan Rice to be the nation’s top diplomat.)
Ironically, the key issue then was Condi Rice’s public use of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. Now McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) are seizing on Susan Rice’s citing of initial intelligence about the Benghazi attack to disqualify her.
Here’s what Condi Rice said on a Sunday television show in 2002, “We know that he [Saddam Hussein] has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon. The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
No weapons of mass destruction, let alone nuclear weapons, were ever found.
But in 2005, McCain and Graham fiercely defended Condi Rice from Democratic attacks of “lying,” arguing she had been misled by intelligence. “I can only conclude we're doing this for no other reason than because of lingering bitterness at the outcome of the elections,” McCain complained when Condi Rice’s nomination came to a vote.
Let’s not forget that Condi Rice was also central to the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq, whereas Susan Rice, as U.N. ambassador, appears to be on the periphery on Libya.
Still, when Susan Rice made her appearance on the Sunday shows back in September, we were critical and awarded her Two Pinocchios, saying that “the publicly available evidence stands in stark contrast to Rice’s talking points.” But the White House sharply disputed that conclusion and said it was too early to hand out any Pinocchios.
We also produced a lengthy timeline that documented how long the administration avoided saying the attack in Libya was a terrorist act.
McCain’s comments give us a chance to revisit Susan Rice’s remarks, as there has been additional reporting that has shed some new light on what was known at the time. Is McCain correct in his characterization of Rice’s remarks?
Let’s look at what Rice actually said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sept. 16. She spoke just after the president of the Libyan National Assembly said there is “no doubt that this was preplanned, predetermined.”
BOB SCHIEFFER: And joining us now, Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador — our U.N. ambassador. Madam Ambassador, he [the Libyan president of the National Assembly] says that this is something that has been in the planning stages for months. I understand you had been saying that you think it was spontaneous? Are we not on the same page here?<iframe width="610" height="343" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" src="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/video/videoEmbed.html?uuid=8fb0cf7c-2ec0-11e2-b631-2aad9d9c73ac"></iframe>
SUSAN RICE: Well, Bob, let me tell you what we understand to be the assessment at present. First of all, very importantly, as you discussed with the president, there is an investigation that the United States government will launch, led by the FBI that has begun.
SCHIEFFER: But they are not there yet.
RICE: They are not on the ground yet but they have already begun looking at all sorts of evidence of various sorts already available to them and to us. And they will get on the ground and continue the investigation.
So we'll want to see the results of that investigation to draw any definitive conclusions. But based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what — it began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video.
But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.
SCHIEFFER: But you do not agree with him that this was something that had been plotted out several months ago?
RICE: We do not — we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.
SCHIEFFER: Do you agree or disagree with him that al-Qaeda had some part in this?
RICE: Well, we'll have to find out that out. I mean, I think it's clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al-Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al-Qaeda itself I think is one of the things we'll have to determine.
At the time, we were struck by how closely Rice stuck to her talking points, even ignoring the comments of the Libyan official. But McCain’s recounting does not accurately reflect what she said.
Much of her statement is filled with caveats, such as saying this is “the best information we have to date.” McCain knocks her for not saying this was the work of al-Qaeda, but she does not dispute that possibility; she simply says it needs to be investigated.
She never uses the phrase “flash mob,” or says this is “absolutely” the case but instead says “we believe that it looks like extremist elements” appeared to have opportunistically taken advantage of a protest.
McCain also claims “a casual observer” would know there was no demonstration. U.S. officials now say there is little evidence of a protest but it was not an outlandish thought at the time. After all, it had been heavily reported by the media — including in The Washington Post — based on witness accounts. This was the headline on the Post story just days before Rice’s appearance: “Libya consulate attack came after militants joined protesters, say witnesses, officials.”
In fact, our timeline shows that the American news media did not report until Sept. 20, four days after Rice’s appearance, that there was no anti-American protest. Not until Oct. 9 did the State Department report there was no protest outside the embassy.
Indeed, while McCain in his “Face the Nation” remarks clearly labels the incident an “act of terror,” he does not argue there was no demonstration, just that the event could not have happened without planning: “How spontaneous is a demonstration when people bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons and have a very tactically successful military operation?”
Meanwhile, reporting in recent months suggests that Rice hewed rather closely to the talking points she was given before she went on the program.
The Post’s David Ignatius reported on Oct. 19 that these were the CIA talking points prepared on Sept. 15:
“The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations. This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.”
The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 22 reported that Obama “was told in his daily intelligence briefing for more than a week after the consulate siege in Benghazi that the assault grew out of a spontaneous protest” and that the CIA did not adjust its assessment until Sept. 22.
On Sept. 28, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement that said:
“In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available…. As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
In other words, Susan Rice essentially mouthed the words that were given to her.
Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman, said, “It is clear that both the intelligence community and the State Department knew far more about the nature of the Benghazi attack and the grave security threats leading up to it than President Obama, Ambassador Rice and other administration officials admitted in the weeks after it took place.”
Rogers said that Rice should have been briefed on the following “basic facts” regarding the attack before her appearance on Sept. 16:
1. Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attack, the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington on evidence that that it was carried out by Islamic militants, not a spontaneous protest as described by Ambassador Rice.
2. E-mails sent during the attack by U.S. personnel in Benghazi to White House and State Department officials describe the attack and note that Islamic militants took credit for it.
3. A secret cable addressed to Secretary Clinton described an Aug. 15 “emergency meeting” at the consulate, at which the State Department’s regional security officer “expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support and the overall size of the compound.” The meeting also included a briefing about al-Qaeda training camps in the Benghazi area and Islamist militias, including those that allegedly carried out the Sept. 11 attack.
4. Just hours before his death, Ambassador Stevens expressed in a cable “growing problems with security” in Benghazi and “growing frustration” with local police and militias.
5. There were repeated attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, and RPG attack on the British Ambassador.
6. Letters and other correspondence found at the scene of the crime weeks after the attack by Foreign Policy Magazine reporters visiting Benghazi clearly warning of surveillance of the compound.
All of these links are from news reports from October. The government is a pretty big place, and often it takes time for information to filter up through the bureaucracy, let alone among different agencies. (We recall how Condi Rice inadequately supervised private security contractors in Iraq, and in 2007 conceded oversight and follow-up was inappropriate despite numerous reports of Iraqi deaths in the previous three years.)
Perhaps this information could have been assembled in less than a week, and perhaps Rice should have asked more questions before she ventured onto the Sunday shows. But that still does not excuse how McCain described her comments.
The Pinocchio Test
There are many questions about what happened in Libya on Sept.11.
One could fault Susan Rice for not being quicker on her feet, especially when confronted by the comments of the Libyan official. But she was not directly involved in the running of the Libyan diplomatic mission or its security. She was essentially acting as an administration spokeswoman, apparently using words crafted by the CIA, to describe what was — and still is — a murky situation.
McCain mischaracterizes Rice’s words and then assumes she should have had all the information that is known now about the Benghazi attack. Her claim that there was a protest is clearly wrong, but within the context of that week, it was not off base, since it appeared in news reports quoting witnesses and even in the president’s daily briefing.
As we have written, the administration — and especially the president — appeared suspiciously reluctant to label the attack an act of terrorism. But within the context of all those statements, Susan Rice’s remarks five days after the attack appear to be a sideshow, especially because she had virtually no role in the key issues surrounding the Libyan mission.
Readers know we frown on hypocrisy. Given that McCain was so quick to excuse Condi Rice for making remarks of much greater import, it seems rather unsporting to quickly rush to judgment and mischaracterization in the case of Susan Rice.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker