WASHINGTON — Three Republican senators said after meeting Tuesday with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that their concerns have increased over her flawed account of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get” about whether Rice knew the Sept. 11 attack at the compound was related to terrorism, Sen. John McCain of Arizona told reporters. “It was clear the information that she gave the America people was incorrect.”
Republicans led by McCain have said Rice misled the public by saying on five Sunday television talk shows on Sept. 16 that the attack in Benghazi five days earlier that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans unfolded from a “spontaneous” demonstration against an anti-Islamic video that was “hijacked” by militants.
After the meeting, in which she was joined by Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, Rice issued an emailed statement 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.
The two other senators who attended the meeting — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — also said they were more troubled than before at a time when Rice may be nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed the departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Bottom line, I’m more concerned now that I was before” about Rice’s remarks, Graham said after the meeting. He said much more would need to be learned “before anybody can make a decision about promoting someone involved in Benghazi.”
Ayotte said Rice would have had information available to her because of her role at the U.N. that would have contradicted what she said publicly.
“It’s pretty clear from the beginning we knew those connected to al-Qaida were involved in the attack on the embassy,” Ayotte said.
Rice said in her statement that “In the course of the meeting, we 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.”
Intelligence officials have previously acknowledged there was no spontaneous protest outside the consulate. 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.”
Intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said they dropped references to possible al-Qaida connections to the attack from initial accounts to protect intelligence sources, not the president’s re-election campaign.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the focus by Rice’s critics on her television comments borders on, “some might say, obsession” and are “misplaced.”
“There are no unanswered questions” about Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows and her talking points, he told reporters Tuesday. The outstanding questions are who was responsible for the deaths and how to ensure there isn’t a similar event in the future, he said.
Rice is stepping up her contacts with Republican lawmakers. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is in line to become top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next year, told reporters he will meet with Rice Wednesday. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, also will meet with her Wednesday, said her spokesman, Kevin Kelley.
McCain had eased off his criticism of Rice in recent days, as have other Republicans such as Senator James Inhofe.
McCain said on “Fox News Sunday” on Nov. 25 that Rice is “not the problem. The problem is the president of the United States,” who McCain said misled the public about terrorist involvement in the Libya attack.
McCain had previously called Rice’s comments “not very bright” and vowed to oppose her for secretary of state.
Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is likely to take over from McCain in January as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Sunday that he may support Rice for secretary of state after initially believing she misled the public.
“I believe she very well could have been thrown under the bus” by being given inaccurate information, Inhofe said.
Obama came out out strongly in defense of Rice, a close confidante since his first run for president in 2008 when she was his foreign policy adviser. At a Nov. 14 news conference, Obama said his UN envoy had done “exemplary work” and for senators including McCain “to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
Rice, who didn’t speak with reporters after her meeting Tuesday, told reporters in New York on Nov. 21 that she had “relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community. I made clear that the information was preliminary and that our investigations would give us the definitive answers.”
She said some of McCain’s statements “have been unfounded, but I look forward to having the opportunity at the appropriate time to discuss all of this with him. I have great respect for Senator McCain and his service to our country.”