By Gregory Wallace, CNN
(CNN) — Republican legislators on Sunday questioned the motives behind the Obama administration’s initial description of the September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, after Friday briefings on Capitol Hill from the former CIA director.
Asked whether the Obama administration’s initial description of the attacks as “spontaneous” was an attempt to avoid a discussion about terrorist groups being involved, Sen. Roy Blunt said, “Until you hear a better explanation, that’s the only conclusion you could reach.”
“You have to have a really good reason why you don’t give the American people the information you had, unless you think you’re somehow going to really endanger the people that are in other parts of the world,” the Missouri Republican said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The attacks resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. David Petraeus, who recently resigned as director of the CIA, said in closed-door congressional briefings on Friday that the attack was planned and launched by terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda, according to lawmakers and those who attended. He downplayed the use of the word “spontaneous,” according to these accounts.
Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has faced sharp criticism from Republicans for describing the attack as “spontaneous” in appearances on Sunday talk shows the week of the attack. The questions have included why she was the administration’s spokesperson on the matter and why references to terrorism were removed — and by whom — from the declassified talking points she used in her appearances.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has joined with fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in saying he would not support a promotion for Rice. They say they don’t buy the suggestion that the “spontaneous protest” explanation was part of the public narrative so that al Qaeda would be unaware of the U.S. intelligence community’s suspicions.
“Isn’t it kind of off — if the reason is to take al Qaeda out of the equation to make sure that al Qaeda doesn’t know that we’re onto them — that the story they told helps the president enormously three weeks before the election?” he asked on NBC. “Because I don’t buy that for one bit, that doesn’t make sense to me.”
Graham and McCain have said they would block Rice’s nomination to serve as secretary of state, should she be nominated. Rice is seen to be a possible successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she does not want to serve through President Barack Obama’s second term but will stay in her post until a candidate is ready.
Obama fiercely defended Rice at a news conference on Wednesday but did not say who his top choices for the position are.
“If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after someone, they should go after me,” Obama said. “When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”
Graham has said that there are “a lot of other qualified people” who could be chosen and that Rice’s comments following the Benghazi attacks cause him to distrust her. “The reason I don’t trust her is that I think she knew better, and if she didn’t know better, she shouldn’t be the voice of America,” Graham said.
Sunday on “Meet The Press,” he said that if her name is advanced, “I’m going to listen to what Susan Rice has to say, put her entire record in context — but I’m not going to give her a plus for passing on a narrative that was misleading to the American people, whether she knew it was misleading or not.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said on NBC, “I don’t know who we were protecting” by removing references to terrorism from the talking points.
“I do know that the answer given to us is we didn’t want to name a group until we had some certainty,” Feinstein, a Democrat, continued. “Well, where this went awry is, anybody that brings weapons and mortars and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and breaks into an asset of the United States is a terrorist in my view.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, echoed Blunt’s sentiment.
“I know the narrative was wrong and the intelligence was right,” he said, also on NBC. “The narrative as it went, from at least the CIA and other intelligence agencies, was accurate, as we know today, was an act of terrorism.”
Rogers, a Republican, said it appears references to terrorism were removed from the talking points, but not by the intelligence community. “When asked, there was no one in the professional intelligence community (who) could tell us who changed what,” he said.
Rogers added, “This isn’t just about parsing words and who was right. There was some policy decisions made based on the narrative that was not consistent with the intelligence that we had. That’s my concern.”