WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 September 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 November 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.”
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 Benghazi situation.”
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.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Jackie Frank and Todd Eastham