Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Homeland Security Committee, center, accompanied by fellow Senate Armed Services Committee member, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., right, gestures while speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday.
WASHINGTON — Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, conceded Tuesday that she incorrectly described the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September as following a spontaneous protest, rather than being a terrorist attack. But she said she based her statement on the intelligence available at the time and did not intend to mislead the U.S. public.
Rice’s acknowledgment, in a meeting on Capitol Hill with three Republican senators who had criticized her earlier statements in a series of television interviews after the attack, seemed to do little to quell their anger. The senators emerged from the meeting voicing even deeper reservations about Rice’s role in the messy aftermath of the Benghazi attack, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans.
“We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got, and some that we didn’t get,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona said to reporters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, “Bottom line: I’m more concerned than I was before” — a sentiment echoed by Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
Their statements — coming after Rice’s conciliatory remarks during a meeting designed to mend fences with her three critics and smooth the way for her nomination as secretary of state if President Barack Obama decides on her as the successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton — attested to the bitterness of the feud between the White House and Republicans over Benghazi.
Graham and Ayotte said that knowing what they know now, they would place a hold on Rice’s nomination if Obama selected her.
“I wouldn’t vote for anybody being nominated out of the Benghazi debacle until I had answers about what happened that I don’t have today,” Graham said.
Republicans have seized on Rice’s initial account — that the Benghazi attack stemmed from a spontaneous protest gone awry, rather than being a premeditated terrorist attack — as a politically motivated cover-up by the administration. The White House has defended Rice by saying she was simply articulating talking points produced by intelligence agencies.
Rice is viewed as Obama’s favored candidate to replace Clinton. The president delivered a passionate defense of Rice at his news conference two weeks ago and scolded the senators for making her a target in their broader attack on the White House.
Rice had asked for the meeting and was accompanied by the acting CIA director, Michael J. Morrell, amid signs that McCain and Graham were softening their opposition to her potential nomination.
“She deserves the ability and the opportunity to explain herself,” McCain said Sunday.
In a statement issued after the meeting, Rice said she and Morrell discussed the talking points that she used when she appeared on five Sunday morning talk shows Sept. 16, five days after the attack.
“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.
“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,” she added. “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.”
That did not mollify the senators.
Graham said that as the ambassador to the United Nations, Rice had access to classified intelligence about the attack and had an obligation to question intelligence agencies before presenting an account that later proved inaccurate.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said after the meeting: “There are no unanswered questions about Ambassador Rice’s appearance on Sunday shows and the talking points she used for those appearances that were provided by the intelligence community. Those questions have been answered.”
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