A month after the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, a fateful series of television appearances by Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, is haunting the Obama administration in the face of allegations that it deliberately attempted to play down suspicions of terrorist involvement.
Rice made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows on Sept. 16, five days after the attack in the Libyan city, and in each one she said the fatal assault appeared to have stemmed from a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam video.
The appearances were part of a gradual increase in the public profile of an administration insider, one eyed as a potential successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. Today, Rice’s profile has been raised, but hardly in the way that she or her White House supporters would have liked.
The administration’s characterization only days after Rice’s TV appearances that the assault in Libya was a terrorist attack has raised questions about why she attributed the incident to a protest that officials now say did not take place. Republicans have pressed for answers on whether she simply went too far in her assessment or was reading from an administration script that was designed to protect President Obama’s record on national security in an election year.
In an interview Monday with The Washington Post, Rice said she relied on daily updates from intelligence agencies in the days before her television appearances and on a set of talking points prepared for senior members of the administration by intelligence officials. She said there was no attempt to pick and choose among possible explanations for the attack.
“Absolutely not,” Rice said. “It was purely a function of what was provided to us” and had been given to Congress the day before.
Administration officials have risen to her defense. On Monday, Clinton said she wanted to “avoid some kind of political gotcha.”
“I take responsibility” for what happened on Sept. 11, Clinton told CNN in an interview shortly after arriving in Lima, the capital of Peru, for a visit.
Republicans have dismissed suggestions that they are playing politics. And Rice’s explanation of her remarks, which echoes that of other administration officials, including Vice President Biden, has not blunted the criticism.
“The facts are there was never a riot,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”
“My belief is that that was known by the administration within 24 hours and, quite frankly, Susan Rice, on your show on September 16th, the president on the 18th and the 25th, kept talking about an attack inspired by a video.”
The White House has said that it turned to Rice to make the administration’s case on the Benghazi attack because it made sense to have a top diplomat speak to the loss of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens.
Rice has previously said little about the controversy generated by her TV appearances. Aides have said that her comments have been taken out of context and that she stressed at the time that the FBI was still investigating the attack.
“Ambassador Rice’s comments were prefaced at every turn with a clear statement that an investigation was underway that would provide the definitive accounting of the events that took place in Benghazi,” said Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
The White House has supported that explanation but has not specified the intelligence that underlined Rice’s statements. Instead, officials have deemed as preposterous allegations that Rice or anyone else cherry-picked intelligence and have argued that it would make no sense for the administration to knowingly put out a false narrative that could so easily be disproved.
In the interview, Rice said intelligence agencies were doing their best to understand what had happened in complicated circumstances and should not be blamed. “What you get Day 1, Day 2, Day 14 isn’t the whole story,” she said.
Intelligence agencies collected “multiple threads” of information that day and night, and the assessment of those threads changed over time, Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy said last week before a congressional committee.
“If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, Sept. 16th, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said,” Kennedy said.
In addition to her comments on CBS, Rice told NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “Our current assessment is what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video.”
During an interview on Fox News Channel the same day, she attributed the Benghazi attack to a protest gone wrong.
Republican criticism of Rice’s handling of the crisis comes at a time when the administration appeared to be grooming her for a more visible diplomatic position.
In recent months, she has represented the United States at a state funeral for a close U.S. ally, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and mixed family sightseeing at the Taj Mahal with high-level talks with India’s top foreign policy officials.
“The president has enormous confidence in Ambassador Rice and is extremely grateful for all the important work she does at the U.N. every day,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
The spokesman said he would not “speculate on future personnel decisions.”
Micah Zenko of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations said Rice’s political fate largely rests on whether investigations by a State Department panel and by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee “find compelling evidence she had intelligence that didn’t match” the account she presented to the public.
“I think it would be very difficult for the administration to put her forward [for secretary of state] if she willfully mischaracterized the intelligence,” Zenko said.
He said he would “find it hard to believe” that Republicans could muster sufficient opposition to block her nomination if the evidence indicates that her account matched the intelligence assessments.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.