Lawmakers Say Meeting With Rice Left Them With More Questions
Washington (CNN) — Republican lawmakers said Tuesday their meeting with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the acting CIA director left them with more unanswered questions about her remarks following the September 11, 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
Speaking to reporters after the morning meeting, Sen. John McCain said he and fellow Republicans Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham were “significantly troubled” by many of the answers they received from Rice, who asked for the meeting with the three senators after they issued sharp criticism of her response to the Benghazi attack.
“It was clear that the information that she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video,” McCain said. “There was compelling evidence at the time that was certainly not the case, including statements by Libyans as well as other Americans who are fully aware that people don’t bring mortars and rocket propelled grenades to a spontaneous demonstration.”
Graham, speaking after McCain, said he was “more disturbed now than I was before that 16 September explanation about how four Americans died in Benghazi, Libya, by Ambassador Rice.”
“I think it does not do justice to the reality at the time and in hindsight was clearly completely wrong. But here’s the key. In real time, it was a statement disconnected from reality,” the South Carolina Republican said.
McCain, Graham, and Ayotte have led the criticism of Rice after her television appearances days after the September attack, which killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.
They and other Republicans said they would block the nomination of Rice, should she be advanced by President Barack Obama to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she will leave her post when a replacement is ready to be installed.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded with a defense of Rice: “The focus on – some might say obsession on – comments made on Sunday shows seems to me and to many to be misplaced.”
“There are no unanswered questions about ambassador Rice’s appearance on Sunday shows and the talking points that she used for those appearances that were provided by the intelligence community,” he said at Tuesday’s White House briefing for reporters. “Those questions have been answered. 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.”
In the meeting, Rice “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,” according to a statement she released.
She said the meeting was attended by acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who took the reins of the spy agency two weeks ago after the sudden resignation of director David Petraeus amid an extramarital affair. Petraeus briefed lawmakers on the attacks before Thanksgiving.
“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,” Rice said in the statement. “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.”
Graham said on Tuesday it was too soon to make a determination on whether or not to block a potential Rice nomination, saying “before anybody can make an intelligent decision about promoting someone involved in Benghazi, we need to do a lot more.”
“All I can tell you are that the concerns I have are greater today than they were before and we’re not even close to getting the basic answers,” he continued.
Later this week, Rice will meet with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the homeland security committee, which is investigating the Benghazi attack. Collins has not been as critical of Rice as McCain, Graham and Ayotte but has said Rice needs to explain what happened.
This weekend, McCain expressed more openness to her potentially filling that post, saying he would “give everyone the benefit of explaining their position and the actions that they took. I’d be glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with her.”
He denied Tuesday those remarks reflected a “softening” of his position on Rice.
Rice has not been offered the position but is suspected to top the list of possible successors. At a press conference after his re-election, Obama called McCain and Graham’s criticism of Rice “outrageous,” adding that if they “and others want to go after someone they should go after me.”
The ambassador said she was using de-classified talking points that did not reference the attack as a pre-meditated terror attack, and the spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence later said those talking points were prepared by the intelligence community, and not modified by other governmental agencies.
“When discussing the attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community. I made clear that the information was preliminary,” Rice told reporters last Wednesday.
McCain charged on the floor of the U.S. Senate hours before Obama’s post-election press conference that “this president and this administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover up, neither of which are acceptable to the American people.”
Republicans have questioned why the administration used Rice as their spokeswoman, rather than an official more closely involved with the investigation, as well as why the U.S. timeline included a protest surrounding a controversial anti-Islam web video, which now appears to have not been a factor.
On Monday, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a GOP member of the Foreign Relations Committee who recently said Rice was “not fitting” to be Secretary of State in part because of comments on the attack, appeared to shift his views about Rice.
Inhofe said Rice may have been “thrown under the bus” because she wasn’t given the full details of what happened before going on television.
“I assumed she had full knowledge of everything that went on,” Inhofe said about his initial criticism of Rice. “I’m not at all convinced of that now. I think she very well could have been thrown under the bus.”
Inhofe said Monday he has had no request to meet with Rice at this point but that he would be glad to meet with her.
By Ted Barrett, Dan Lothian, Eric Fiegel, Gregory Wallace, and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.
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