Three leading Republican critics of United Nations Ambassador Susan E. Rice said that meeting with her Tuesday left them only more troubled about her potential nomination to be secretary of State.
Two of those Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, confirmed that they would, for the time being, at least, block her confirmation should the president decide to appoint her to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton has long made clear she intends to leave Foggy Bottom early next year.
Emerging from an hourlong meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning with Rice and Michael J. Morell, acting CIA director, Graham, Ayotte and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pronounced themselves “more disturbed” than before their meeting about Rice’s qualifications for the top job in the State Department.
Their primary concern involves the Obama administration’s response to the September attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, and Rice’s role in it. They said they also still have questions about how the intelligence community communicated information about the attack.
The three senators, as well as other GOP critics, have zeroed in on Rice’s statements on several Sunday morning news programs five days after the attack, when she claimed that the assault appeared to have been a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim video.
There was “compelling evidence at the time that that was simply not the case,” McCain said Tuesday morning.
Intelligence officials now say that the assault was a coordinated effort by a fundamentalist Islamic militia, but they also have maintained that Rice was only repeating the unclassified talking points they provided officials at the time. President Barack Obama has fiercely defended Rice, a longtime foreign policy adviser, and said the GOP criticism has been an unwarranted, politically driven attempt to tarnish her reputation.
“The focus on a Sunday show appearance is entirely misplaced, and it represents less interest, I think, in what happened in Benghazi than in political dynamics in Washington,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
In a statement released after the meeting, Rice acknowledged that the talking points on which she based her televised remarks “were incorrect in a key respect: There was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi.”
“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 said. She also thanked the senators for “the opportunity to discuss these issues directly and constructively with them.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the Republican attack on Rice “outrageous and utterly unmoored from facts and reality” in a statement released late Tuesday.
He added, “There should be no place for such blatant partisanship in oversight of our nation’s intelligence community. “
Rice’s meeting with the three senators prompted Sen. James M. Inhofe to walk back statements he made Monday indicating his opposition to a Rice nomination had softened.