By Joe Conason
With the Republican right persisting in baseless persecution of Susan Rice, the U.N. Ambassador who may replace departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it has left President Obama little choice but to move ahead with her nomination. If he backs away from Rice, in the face of what he has called false accusations against her, that display of weakness would undermine his second term before it begins.
The opposition to Rice is cobbled together from the remnants of a failed “October Surprise” election gambit, which began when Mitt Romney sought to smear the president by using the tragic attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. In the election’s aftermath, Senate Republicans have fixated on Rice, whom they accuse of misleading the public in television appearances several days after the Sept. 11 incident.
Rice’s supposed offense was to downplay the likelihood that the attack had been perpetrated by al-Qaida terrorists or their local allies, while underlining the idea that it had been inspired by an anti-Muslim video on the Internet. On ABC News’ “This Week,” she repeated almost precisely the talking points provided to her by the CIA: Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous—not a premeditated—response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated. We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to—or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo.
And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in—in the wake of the revolution in Libya are—are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there. We’ll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that’s the best information we have at present.
In those remarks, Rice clearly warned against drawing any conclusions from the preliminary information then available. Nevertheless, Senate Republicans led by John McCain have sought to defame her as a liar, a fool, or worse. The latest insult came on Tuesday from Senator Kelly Ayotte, a junior Republican from New Hampshire with no significant national security experience and little evident grasp of the facts. Tagging along with the embittered McCain and his reliable sidekick Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ayotte made an unprecedented threat to put a “hold” on Rice’s nomination if Obama sends it up to the Hill—the first time in memory that a senator has deployed that privilege against a prospective nominee to head the State Department.
Exactly what the right suspects about Benghazi isn’t clear. Initially, Republicans seem to have hoped that talking up al Qaeda would somehow help Romney and damage Obama. Not the most patriotic strategy, but that was their plan. What they supposedly suspect now remains obscure. Graham mutters darkly that he is “disturbed,” while McCain claims to be “troubled.” The blustering Ayotte has now locked herself in a bunker with these volatile characters, whose motives and behavior are hardly above suspicion.
Whatever their problem, knuckling under to such a puerile challenge would represent an unacceptable defeat for the newly re-elected Obama.
Properly, the Benghazi incident is under investigation by the FBI and the CIA as well as Congressional committees—and what those probes appear to have established so far is that the security arrangements at the consulate never came within the specific purview of the White House. The CIA almost certainly made mistakes and omissions in protecting the consulate and sadly paid for those errors with the lives of courageous agency officers who died there trying to protect the State Department staff when the compound came under sustained assault from heavily armed jihadi militants.
The notion that Rice or any other administration official intentionally misled the public already has been thoroughly debunked by David Petraeus, the resigned CIA director. Petraeus told a closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill, attended by McCain, that Rice had faithfully followed the declassified talking points provided by U.S. intelligence agencies. (McCain promptly fled from reporters when that hearing ended.) Although the president himself had referred to the Benghazi attack as an “act of terror” in the White House Rose Garden, specific information about potential terrorist suspects remained classified for sound investigative reasons.
It isn’t hard to imagine what McCain would say if Rice had accidentally blurted out classified details of the Benghazi probe prematurely on television. In fact, it isn’t necessary to imagine, because not so long ago, he angrily accused the White House of revealing classified information. But in fact, the only damaging leak in the Benghazi matter emerged from the hyperactive mouth of Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
Perhaps McCain, Graham and Ayotte should instead spew their bile on Issa, who has actually abused his authority and trifled with national security. They would be better off, because their reputations—and not Rice’s—will be irreparably damaged if they continue to pursue this vendetta when the president sends up her nomination.
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White House/Pete Souza
President Barack Obama listens as Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks in the Cabinet room.