WASHINGTON—When UN Ambassador Susan Rice took to the media airwaves in the immediate aftermath of the deadly September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, she blamed an anti-Muslim internet video.
When overwhelming evidence revealed that a coordinated attack and not a spontaneous protest led to the incident in which four Americans were killed, Ambassador Rice defended herself by claiming she based her comments on talking points provided by the intelligence community.
For many Americans the tragedy that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens faded into the background as September moved toward the November presidential election. But now that President Barack Obama has secured a second term, Rice’s storyline has started to unravel.
In mid-November, former CIA Director David Petraeus testified to congressional lawmakers that the CIA’s original talking points written in the aftermath of the incident did label the raid a terrorist attack. Petraeus told members of the House and Senate intelligence communities before the Thanksgiving recess that he wasn’t sure which federal agency deleted the terrorist references.
According to reports, those talking points had the original word “attacks” replaced by “demonstrations” and the phrase “with ties to al-Qaeda” deleted altogether.
Gen. Petraeus’ testimony stoked concerns among Republican lawmakers that the public statements regarding the attack had been politicized by an Obama administration not wanting any doubts to surface over their handling of foreign policy before voters went to the polls.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the video a “political smokescreen” that was never the reason for the attack.
Just days after Petraeus testified, with a growing number of media outlets trying to connect the dots, the director of the National Intelligence office stepped up and took the blame for changing the talking points. A spokesman for the agency declared on Nov. 19 that government officials outside of the intelligence community made no deletions of references to terrorist attacks.
But the National Intelligence office falling on its sword did not impress many GOP lawmakers, who have promised to call hearings on who changed the talking points.
In an effort to mend fences, Rice, who has been mentioned as President Obama’s likely nominee to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, met privately on Tuesday and Wednesday with Republican senators who serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
On Wednesday, Rice had a private one-on-one session with moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who expressed concerned about a Rice nomination to the high-profile Cabinet post.
“I still have many questions that remain unanswered,” Sen. Collins told reporters after the meeting. “I continue to be troubled by the fact that the UN ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of the contentious presidential election campaign by agreeing to go on the Sunday shows to present the administration’s position.”
Although Collins did not say she would block a Rice nomination, she did note that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., would have an easier path to confirmation than Rice would.
Rice later met with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who is in line to become the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Corker declined to say whether he would support Rice or not, but was highly critical of the intelligence apparatus and the administration.
“The whole issue of Benghazi has been a tawdry affair,” Corker told reporters after his 90-minute session with Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell.
During her one-hour-plus meeting with Sens. Graham, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., on Tuesday, Rice admitted that her initial accounts of the Benghazi attack were inaccurate.
But the three senators emerged from the meeting unimpressed. “Bottom line, I’m more disturbed now than I was before,” Sen. Graham told reporters.
Sen. McCain said that there was “compelling evidence” at the time of the attacks that the video was not to blame, “including statements by Libyans as well as other Americans who are fully aware that people don’t bring mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to spontaneous demonstrations.”
In a joint statement, the three senators said, “We are disturbed by the administration’s continued inability to answer even the most basic questions about the Benghazi attack. …”
Adding to the senators’ confusion was an acknowledgement made by Morrell—who also attended Tuesday’s meeting—that was later amended by the CIA. On Tuesday Morell blamed the FBI for removing the al-Qaeda reverences in the talking points to protect an ongoing criminal investigation.
“However, at approximately 4 this afternoon,” the senators’ statement from Tuesday read, “CIA officials contacted us and indicated that acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaeda references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why.”
Because of her possible Cabinet nomination, Republicans in the Senate will continue to press her on the inaccurate accounts she gave in the event’s immediate aftermath.
But with the Democrats gaining seats in the Senate it may be difficult for Republicans to hold Rice and others accountable for the revised narrative. While Republicans still control the House, it is the Senate where Obama’s top Cabinet officials receive confirmation.
Rice issued her own statement on Tuesday, saying “neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process.”
The White House tried to dismiss the controversy. “The focus on—some might say obsession on—comments made on Sunday shows seems to me and to many to be misplaced,” spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
The battle over talking point revisions will continue. But what should not be lost are larger questions over the inadequate security measures in place in Benghazi. In mid-August, a month before the attacks, intelligence reports said there were as many as 10 al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operating in Benghazi. The area was dangerous enough for the British to close their consulate and for the Red Cross to leave. Yet, according to Petraeus’ testimony, the consulate security was so light that the attackers could walk right in and set it on fire. Stevens died of smoke inhalation.
“We know mistakes were made, and we’ve got to learn from that,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.