What was supposed to be a make-nice meeting on Tuesday seemed only to make things more contentious between the White House and Senate Republicans over U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s comments following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice came face to face with some of her harshest Republican critics, hoping to allay their concerns about whether she misled Americans regarding what precipitated the assault. President Obama has staunchly defended Rice and is said to be considering her for his next secretary of state, but the meeting apparently only served to deepen GOP skepticism.
“Bottom line, I’m more disturbed now than I was before,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).
Rice and Acting CIA Director Michael Morell met privately with Graham and Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who have been leading the GOP charge against the administration since the attack that led to the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Ayotte said she left the meeting with Rice “more troubled, not less.”
McCain told reporters that he and his colleagues remain “significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get concerning evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate that we tried to get.”
And late Tuesday, the three senators issued a statement that said: “We are disturbed by the Administration’s continued inability to answer even the most basic questions about the Benghazi attack and the Administration’s response. Beyond Ambassador Rice’s misstatements, we continue to have questions about what happened in Benghazi before, during, and after the attack on our consulate — as well as the President’s statements regarding the attack.”
For several weeks, Rice has defended herself against allegations that she knowingly misled the public about the assault during a series of appearances on Sunday political talk shows five days afterward. She said repeatedly then that a spontaneous demonstration led to the violence, a claim later debunked by intelligence officials and reports from the ground.
Some Republicans have suggested that the administration purposely mischaracterized the event for fear of political fallout in the closing stages of the presidential campaign, but three weeks after Election Day, the issue remains politically volatile.
“It was clear that the information she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful group,” McCain said Tuesday. “It was not, and there was compelling evidence at the time that that was certainly not the case.”
In a statement after the meeting Tuesday, Rice said that she and Morell “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.”
Rice added 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.”
The senators’ Tuesday night statement also said Morell corrected information he had given them earlier in the day about who had removed terror plot references from the talking points.
“At approximately 4:00 this afternoon, CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaeda references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why,” the statement said.
A U.S. intelligence official confirmed that the CIA made the changes related to al-Qaeda in the talking points and that the agency did correct some of Morell’s statement to the senators.
Graham said that if the administration was confused about the events in Benghazi, it should have been silent. “The American people got bad information on 16 September, they got bad information from President Obama days after, and the question is, should they have been giving the information at all? If you can do nothing but give bad information, isn’t it better to give no information at all?”
Graham and Ayotte said they will place holds on Rice’s nomination if she is named to lead the State Department, as well as on Morell, if he is tapped to succeed former CIA director David H. Petraeus, as has been reported.
“Before anyone can make an intelligent decision about promoting someone involved in Benghazi, we need to do a lot more,” Graham said. “We’re not even close to getting the basic answers.”
While the president has been forceful in his support for Rice, the controversy may make a Senate confirmation more difficult for her. Democrats control 53 seats and will hold 55 next year, and no member of the Democratic caucus has expressed concerns about Rice. But moving to a final vote on her confirmation would require 60 yeas — meaning Democrats would need to persuade at least five Republicans to vote in favor.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called Rice’s tenure “impeccable” and called on GOP colleagues to drop their objections.
“The election is over. It is time to drop these partisan political games and focus our attention on the real challenges facing us as a nation,” Reid said.
Rice and Morell later met separately with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose homeland security committee is leading a probe of the attacks. That meeting produced a more supportive declaration for Rice.
“I’ve interrogated and cross-examined a lot of witnesses in my day, but I felt she was telling me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth based on that and corroborated by the director of the CIA,” Lieberman said. “I don’t see a basis for disqualifying Susan Rice for some other position in our government.”
The White House and senior intelligence officials have said that Rice’s statements in the days after the attack followed talking points they approved, including vague wording designed to conceal intelligence information. Rice said that “extremist” elements participated in the assault and that the conclusions were preliminary pending an FBI investigation.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney rejected the Republican senators’ allegation that Rice and Morell left questions unanswered.
“I would simply say that there are no unanswered questions about Ambassador Rice’s appearances” on Sept. 16, Carney said. “The questions that remain to be answered, and that the president insists are answered, have to do with what happened in Benghazi, who was responsible for the deaths of four Americans, including our ambassador, and what steps we need to take to ensure that something like that does not happen again.”
The three senators replied in their evening statement: “We respectfully disagree with the White House’s statement today that ‘there are no unanswered questions’ about Ambassador Rice’s September 16 Sunday show appearances and the talking points she used.”
Other Republican senators expressed tepid support for Rice on Tuesday, saying they will reserve judgment on whether they would vote to confirm her as secretary of state.
“She always reminds me of someone who’s had every drop of Kool-Aid, always espousing 1,000 percent of whatever point of view the administration is putting forward,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But he said his meetings with Rice have always been “transparent and direct.”
Rice is scheduled to meet with Corker on Wednesday.
Karen DeYoung and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.