* Rice seen as possible candidate for secretary of state
* Republican McCain says 'troubled' by answers
* Senators will not support her until questions resolved
By Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Nov 27 U.S. Ambassador to the United
Nations Susan Rice on Tuesday conceded that an early account she
gave about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya,
was partly inaccurate, but she failed to win over Republican
senators who accused her of misleading the public.
Rice met for about an hour behind closed doors at the U.S.
Capitol with Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and
Kelly Ayotte, who have threatened to block her nomination if
President Barack Obama chooses her for Secretary of State or
another top post in his second-term Cabinet.
They have openly criticized her for initial comments after
the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that suggested it was a
spontaneous event arising from protests over an anti-Islam film
rather than a premeditated attack.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were
killed in the attack on the Benghazi mission and a nearby CIA
annex. Intelligence officials later said the attack was possibly
tied to al Qaeda affiliates.
"We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that
we got, and some that we didn't get, concerning evidence that
was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate,"
McCain told reporters after the meeting.
"It is clear that the information that she gave the American
people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous
demonstration triggered by a hateful video," he said.
"It was not, and there was compelling evidence at the time
that that was certainly not the case, 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," McCain said.
Republicans have argued that the Obama administration tried
to play down the terrorist angle in its initial comments to
avoid undermining the president's claims of success in fighting
al Qaeda in the run-up to the Nov. 6 election.
Rice, who was accompanied by acting CIA Director Michael
Morell, later issued a statement saying:
"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."
"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.
"We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the
Administration intended to mislead the American people at any
stage in this process."
'WAY TOO EARLY TO TELL'
Obama has defended Rice and said if senators have a problem
with the administration's handling of Benghazi they should "go
after me" rather than try to "besmirch her reputation."
Obama has also said if he believed Rice was the right person
for a job in his administration, he would not hesitate to
nominate her, throwing down the gauntlet to Republicans.
The White House has not given a timeframe for when the
president might nominate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's
replacement. Clinton's aides have said she plans to step down
around the inauguration, which is in late January, and would
like to stay until her successor is confirmed.
Rice met in the afternoon with Senator Joseph Lieberman, the
independent chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee,
and she will return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with
the panel's top Republican, Senator Susan Collins.
Collins said it was "way too early to tell" if Rice could
attract the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome any procedural
obstacles if she is nominated, but that Rice had erred in being
the administration's voice on Benghazi if she was interested in
becoming secretary of state.
"The secretary of state is supposed to be above politics,
and she played a very political role by appearing at the height
of the political campaign, on those shows," Collins said.
Lieberman, after meeting Rice, said: "I specifically asked
her whether at any point prior to going on those Sunday morning
television shows she was briefed or urged to say certain things
by anybody in the White House related to the campaign or
political operations. She said 'no.'"
Graham also criticized U.S. intelligence agencies that wrote
the talking points on which Rice based her public comments.
"I'm very disappointed in our intelligence community. I
think they failed in many ways. But with a little bit of inquiry
and curiosity, I think it would be pretty clear that to explain
this episode as related to a video that created a mob that
turned into a riot was far afield," he said. "And at the end of
the day, we're going to get to the bottom of this."
Rice's controversial Benghazi statements were based on a set
of unclassified talking points prepared by U.S. intelligence
agencies for members of Congress.
The initial draft written by the CIA referred to "attacks"
carried out by "extremists with ties to al Qaeda." However by
the time Rice received them, "attacks" had changed to
"demonstrations" and "with ties to al Qaeda" had been deleted,
multiple U.S. sources have said.
The White House has denied making those edits and members of
Congress are trying to determine where the changes came from.
"The points clearly reflect the early indications of
extremist involvement in a direct assault. It wasn't until after
they were used in public that analysts reconciled contradictory
information about how the assault began," a U.S. intelligence
official said. "There was absolutely no intent to misinform."
The senators who met with Rice remained unconvinced by her
responses and said her visit left them with greater concerns
than before the meeting.
"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.
Asked whether he would block such a nomination, Graham
replied: "Oh, absolutely. I would place a hold on anybody that
wanted to be promoted for any job that had a role in the
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the questions about
Rice's appearance on the talk shows and the talking points had
been answered. "The focus on - some might say obsession on -
comments made on Sunday shows seems to me and to many to be
misplaced," he said.