Why is Susan Rice on the hot seat over Benghazi attack?

Republicans vow to get to the bottom of UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s role in reporting the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Democrats say she's being unfairly pilloried.

Yuri Gripas/REUTERS
Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Saxby Chambliss talks to the media after former CIA Director David Petraeus testified at a closed hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The temperature under Susan Rice’s hot seat didn’t cool any over the weekend.

Republicans vow to get to the bottom of UN Ambassador Rice’s role in reporting what happened when the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked on the anniversary of 9/11.

As the Obama administration’s first major spokesman following an attack that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other embassy personnel, Ms. Rice left the impression that “extremist elements” had joined a “spontaneous protest” against an anti-Islam YouTube video that was roiling the region.

Although President Obama strongly defended Rice at his first post-election press conference last week – suggesting his opponents should come after him if they have a problem – Republicans aren’t letting up on Rice, reportedly at the top of Obama’s list to become Secretary of State when Hillary Clinton resigns as expected.

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"She's going to have to come in and testify at some point, whether it's in a closed hearing or an open hearing," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham suggests a strong political motive in Rice’s characterization of the attack, particularly when she added that the United States under Obama’s leadership had “decimated al Qaeda.” Intelligence officials and the President later acknowledged that terrorists likely affiliated with al Qaeda had been part of the attack.

“The story she told helped reinforce the political narrative helpful to the president," Sen. Graham said on NBC's "Meet the Press" show. "I don't know what she knew, but I know the story she told was misleading.”

"Had the truth come out a few weeks before the election that our consulate in Benghazi had been overrun by an al Qaeda-sponsored, affiliated militia, that destroys the narrative we have been hearing for months that al Qaeda's been dismantled," Graham said.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggests – without providing any evidence – that the administration changed the “talking points” provided Rice before she appeared on five Sunday news shows five days after the attack at Benghazi.

“The intelligence community had it right, and they had it right early,” Rep. Rogers said on “Meet the Press.” 

In closed House and Senate hearings last week, former CIA Director David Petraeus indicated that US intelligence officials knew from the start that terrorists had carried out the attack, according to lawmakers who spoke with reporters after the hearings. But the retired Army four-star general could not – or chose not to – say how the initial talking points had been changed.

Democrats are pushing back against Republican charges in the matter.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein acknowledges that one day after the Benghazi episode, “Petraeus very clearly said that it was a terrorist attack.” But she says Rice was only able to speak “publicly on unclassified speaking points.” 

Officials have said that initial public statements (including Rice’s) used the word “extremists” – both to conceal intelligence-gathering sources and methods (so as not to reveal the terrorist groups it was tracking) and also because that was seen as the more inclusive word.

“There was only one thing changed, I’ve looked into it and I believe it to be fact, that was the word ‘consulate’ was changed to ‘mission,’” Sen. Feinstein said on “Meet the Press.” “That’s the only change that anyone in the White House made, and I have checked this out.”

“What has concerned me about this is really the politicization of a public statement that was put out by the entire intelligence committee, which Susan Rice, on the 16th, who was asked to go before the people and use that statement, did,” Feinstein added. “She was within the context of that statement, and for this, she has been pilloried for two months.”

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