WASHINGTON—After meeting with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on Tuesday, three GOP lawmakers said their concerns have only grown about misleading statements Rice made concerning the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
Rice’s meeting with Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Capitol Hill came as the White House signaled it may nominate Rice to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state.
McCain, R-Ariz., has said he may oppose her nomination because she should have known her statements on the Sept. 11 attack were false.
Rice said in a round of interviews days after the deadly incident that the attack may have emerged from a protest outside the consulate in response to an anti-Islam video produced in the USA. It was later learned there was no protest and the attack was a well-organized terror plot likely timed for the anniversary of 9/11.
“It is clear the information she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video,” McCain told reporters after the meeting with Rice. “It was not, and there was compelling evidence at the time that that was certainly not the case.”
“The bottom line is that I’m more disturbed than I was before ... about how four Americans died in Benghazi, Libya,” Graham said.
In a statement, Rice said she and acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who joined her for the meeting with lawmakers, reiterated to the senators that her misstatements made on several Sunday talk shows Sept. 16 were based on talking points provided by the intelligence community.
Former CIA director David Petraeus told lawmakers in a closed-door session earlier this month that the CIA’s draft talking points written in response to the assault had referred to it as a terrorist attack. But he also said the reference was removed from the final version.
“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,” Rice said. “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.”
President Obama has defended Rice, who rose up through Democratic circles to advise presidential candidates on international issues. Under President Clinton, she weighed in on key foreign policy decisions, some of which remain controversial.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said questions about Rice’s role have been answered, and the focus of congressional inquiry should be on who attacked the consulate and how to assure security at all U.S. facilities. Carney decried what he called a seeming Republican “obsession” over Rice’s comments, calling it “misplaced.”
But that explanation did not seem to wash with Graham.
“The American people got bad information on 16 September, they got bad information from President Obama days after,” Graham said. “The question is: Should they have been giving the information at all .... It’s unjustified to give the scenario as presented by Ambassador Rice and President Obama three weeks before an election.”
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer and now an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank, said Rice’s performance after the Benghazi attack raises a red flag.
“These officials are supposed to assess these things for themselves,” Gerecht said. “If you see a situation where a consulate safe house is being attacked by mortars and organized teams, that should tell you this was planned before that video came out.”
Rice knew the narrative that would satisfy the White House, Gerecht said. Included in that narrative is that al-Qaida is losing ground, public sentiments toward the United States are improving in the Middle East, and the attack was not connected to U.S. foreign policy. But she still would have had access numerous news reports that contradicted that narrative, he said.
Ayotte, R-N.H., said she remained disturbed about the Benghazi episode.
“I have many more questions that have to be answered,” Ayotte said.
Rice, 48, was born in Washington, D.C., to scholar parents who were themselves involved in policy circles. Her father, Emmett Rice, was the second black governor of the Federal Reserve System; her mother, Lois Dickson Fitt, is an education expert at the Brookings Institution.
Rice received a degree in history at Stanford University in 1986 and attended Oxford before becoming a foreign policy aide to former Democratic Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis during his 1988 presidential run against George H.W. Bush.
After his unsuccessful campaign, Rice became a consultant at McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm.
In 1993 she joined the administration of President Clinton, serving at the National Security Council. She held various positions, including director for International Organizations and Peacekeeping, special assistant to the president and senior director for African Affairs.
She was a policy adviser during the genocide in Rwanda and also at a time when the Clinton administration was determining how to handle the emergence of al-Qaida as a terror threat.
Clinton and his foreign policy staff were criticized for failing to intervene in a serious way to stop the 1994 genocide in which more than 500,000 people were killed, a decision that Clinton would say was the worst mistake of his presidency.
Clinton’s foreign policy staff had to fend off criticism it failed to do more to nab al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden prior to Sept. 11, 2001. According to former ambassador to Sudan, Timothy Carney, when the Sudan offered to help the United States capture bin Laden, Rice and counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke advised against it. Later, the 9/11 Commission said no credible evidence existed that Sudan would have made good on its offer.
Following the election of Republican George W. Bush, Rice joined Brookings in 2002 as a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development program, where she offered analyses on failing states and global hunger.
In 2004, she served as an adviser to the presidential campaign of John Kerry. In 2008, she was asked to advise then-Sen. Obama on foreign policy matters.
In January 2009, Rice was confirmed as President Obama’s permanent representative to the United Nations.
Editor’s note: Oren Dorell writes for USA Today. Also contributing were Aamer Madhani and David Jackson.