Lindsey Graham and John McCain finally came face-to-face with their prey this week.
The two angry Republican senators have been plotting for weeks to stop Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, from rising any further in the Washington firmament. On Nov. 27, their task got more complicated.
Graham, of South Carolina, and McCain, of Arizona — joined occasionally by Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, if only to make it not seem like two men beating up on a woman — are all aboil about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. Well, not exactly: They are upset about what Rice said about the attack on several Sunday-morning talk shows five days later.
Why are they upset at Rice and not, say, officials in charge of security at the mission? Or, if they want to go big, why not Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
Probably because they wanted to go after a lesser official whom President Barack Obama would like to be secretary of state. Or because they don’t want to talk about how Republicans have consistently denied funds to protect diplomatic posts in dangerous places. Or because they don’t want to discuss how supportive they were last decade when then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell testified that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Powell and Rice then, like Susan Rice now, were relying on information provided by the intelligence community. There is, however, a major difference: Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were testifying before official government bodies to justify going to war. Susan Rice was filling airtime between ads for erectile-dysfunction drugs.
Of course, all of this is just more evidence of Washington being full of itself. Only in Washington do people take seriously something said to a tiny audience of insiders half-watching their televisions on a Sunday morning. So seriously that a few senators want to embark on a special investigation beyond those already under way (hearings by congressional committees and a State Department inquiry, headed by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and ordered by Clinton).
It doesn’t make sense unless you’re just looking for conflict or are up for re-election. As it happens, McCain, the grumpy old man of the Senate, is often spoiling for a fight, and the ally of the man who defeated him four years ago is a satisfying target. And Graham, who must face voters in the red state of South Carolina in two years, already features his dispute with Rice in campaign ads.
The renewed outrage this week was a bit of a surprise, as McCain and Graham had softened their stances in recent days. Few Republican colleagues were flocking to their side, and any hope of Democratic support faded after the president’s passionate defense of Rice at his post-election news conference.
Offering an olive branch, McCain said during the Thanksgiving holiday that he would like to hear from Rice. Rice said she would like to be heard. A meeting was scheduled. What might have been the end of this fake melodrama about what Rice said (although not the end of real concern on what to do about preventing future Benghazis) was not to be.
Rice did admit that she was wrong about what happened in Benghazi — but that got lost when the story got a new twist. Acting Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Morell, who accompanied Rice, said it wasn’t the director of national intelligence or the CIA that provided edited intelligence to Rice. It was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After the meeting, the CIA changed its story and said that it did, in fact, change some details.
The confusion doesn’t end there. Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told foreign-policy blogger Josh Rogin that earlier news reports saying James Clapper, the agency’s director, made the edits were “frustratingly wrong.” Turner said the talking points “were debated and edited by a collective of experts” from the intelligence community.
If you believe Rice was relying on intelligence given to her, whether it was collected jointly or separately — or even if it helped paint a picture of what happened that the White House liked — doesn’t really matter. On Benghazi, Rice will always be the messenger, not an actor. It will be left to Pickering to sort out who did what to her talking points.
One senator, independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — usually one of three amigos with McCain and Graham — came out of his meeting with Rice breaking with his friends. Rice was telling “the whole truth,” he said.
That may not matter, either, given how invested Graham and McCain are in making this tragedy all about Rice. Morell’s addition of the FBI to the mix gives them a fresh detail to keep this story going. Then Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and the president himself all but assured a few more news cycles of coverage: Collins, a moderate, said she couldn’t support Rice without more information, while the president reiterated his support of his ambassador.
Then again, this story is getting pretty convoluted. It’s hard enough to know what really happened in Benghazi in September. It’s harder still to implicate Rice in some kind of cover-up. This week’s events will undoubtedly provide more fodder for another round of Sunday-morning talk shows. But the story McCain and Graham are trying to sell is getting harder and harder to swallow.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.