Media Promote GOP's Witch Hunt Against Susan Rice

››› ››› REMINGTON SHEPARD

Reports by major media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and CNN, are giving credence to Republicans' baseless attacks on Ambassador Susan Rice over statements she made in September appearances on Sunday morning political shows regarding an attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. In fact, Rice's remarks were based on the intelligence available at the time, and commentators from across the political spectrum agree that the attacks on Rice are inaccurate and driven by partisanship.

Susan Rice Meets With Senate Republican Critics To Discuss What She Said About Benghazi During Sunday Show Appearances

After An Attack On U.S. Facilities In Benghazi, Susan Rice Appeared On Sunday Shows To Discuss The Latest Intelligence Regarding The Attack. U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, came under attack on September 11. On September 16, Rice appeared on the Sunday morning political shows to explain the latest intelligence on the matter. She explained that an investigation was underway, so no definitive assessments could be made, but the latest intelligence showed that the attack began as a spontaneous response to outrage over an anti-Muslim video that had gained attention. Extremists arrived at the U.S. facilities, leading to the deaths of four Americans. [Media Matters, 10/11/12]

Republicans Responded With Months Of Criticizing Rice, But Suggested That If They Met Face-To-Face, Their Issues Might Be Resolved. As the Huffington Post reported, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who had strongly criticized Rice over her comments about Benghazi, said on November 25 that he could be persuaded to stop his attacks if she met with him to discuss Benghazi. [Huffington Post, 11/25/12]

In Response, Rice Paid A "Conciliatory Call On Three Hostile Senate Republicans." The New York Times reported that Rice went to Capitol Hill to meet with McCain and other Republican critics in the Senate, including Sens. Lindsay Graham and Kelly Ayotte, to explain her Sunday political show statements regarding the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The Times reported that:

In a statement after the meeting, Ms. Rice said she incorrectly described the attack in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as a spontaneous protest gone awry rather than a premeditated terrorist attack. But she said she based her remarks on the intelligence then available  intelligence that changed over time.

"Neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in the process," said Ms. Rice. [The New York Times, 11/27/12]

On Sunday Shows, Rice Accurately Conveyed The View Of The Intelligence Community

Wash. Post's Ignatius: CIA Document Supported Rice's Description Of Attack As Reaction To Anti-Islam Video. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that the CIA had confirmed that Rice's description of the Benghazi attack on the Sunday shows was accurate:

"Talking points" prepared by the CIA on Sept. 15, the same day that Rice taped three television appearances, support her description of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate as a reaction to Arab anger about an anti-Muslim video prepared in the United States. According to the CIA account, "The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations." [Washington Post, 10/19/12]

DNI Office: Intel Community Initially Told Executive Branch And Congress That "Attack Began Spontaneously Following Protests" In Cairo. On September 28, the office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement on the Benghazi attack. It said, "Throughout our investigation we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving." It also noted that its initial assessment was that the attack "began spontaneously":

As the Intelligence Community collects and analyzes more information related to the attack, our understanding of the event continues to evolve. In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available. Throughout our investigation we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving. [DNI.gov, 9/28/12]

DNI Office Said Intel Community Revised "Initial Assessment To Reflect New Information Indicating That It Was A Deliberate And Organized Terrorist Attack." The statement from the DNI's office also made clear that new information led the intelligence community to revise its assessment:

As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists. It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qa'ida. We continue to make progress, but there remain many unanswered questions. As more information becomes available our analysis will continue to evolve and we will obtain a more complete understanding of the circumstances surrounding the terrorist attack. [DNI.gov, 9/28/12]

NY Times: "The Attackers" In Benghazi "Did Tell Bystanders That They Were Attacking The Compound Because They Were Angry About The Video." The New York Times reported that there is evidence to support the notion that the anti-Islam video motivated the attack:

What do eyewitnesses say about the events in Benghazi? Were they related to the insulting video, or is that a red herring? And was the assault planned for the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, or was it spontaneous? 

According to reporting by David D. Kirkpatrick and Suliman Ali Zway of The New York Times, eyewitnesses have said there was no peaceful demonstration against the video outside the compound before the attack, though a crowd of Benghazi residents soon gathered, and some later looted the compound. But the attackers, recognized as members of a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariah, did tell bystanders that they were attacking the compound because they were angry about the video. They did not mention the Sept. 11 anniversary. Intelligence officials believe that planning for the attack probably began only a few hours before it took place. [The New York Times10/17/12, emphasis in the original]

And Commentators From Across The Political Spectrum Agree That The Susan Rice Witch Hunt Is Misplaced And Politically Driven

Journalist Tom Ricks: "The Emphasis On Benghazi Has Been Extremely Political." In an appearance on Fox News' Happening Now, Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks claimed that the all the focus on Susan Rice and Benghazi has been "extremely political."

RICKS: I think that Benghazi generally was hyped, by this network especially, and that now that the campaign is over,  I think he's backing off a little bit. They're not going to stop Susan Rice from being secretary of state.

SCOTT: When you have four people dead, including the first dead U.N. ambassador -- U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years, how do you call that hype?

RICKS: How many security contractors died in Iraq, do you know?

SCOTT: I don't. 

RICKS: No. Nobody does, because nobody cared. We know that several hundred died, but there was never an official count done of security contractors dead in Iraq. So when I see this focus on what was essentially a small firefight, I think, number one, I've covered a lot of firefights. It's impossible to figure out what happens in them sometimes. And second, I think that the emphasis on Benghazi has been extremely political, partly because Fox was operating as a wing of Republican Party. [Media Matters, 11/26/12]

Fox's Juan Williams: "It's Time To End" Politicized Benghazi Witch Hunt. During a Fox News Sunday appearance, Fox contributor Juan Williams challenged the notion that Rice purposefully misled Americans and that this disqualified her from being Secretary of State:

WILLIAMS: That is so unfair. I mean, this lady was given intelligence materials by the intelligence community. You can blame the intelligence community. There is no way you can blame Susan Rice, and to suggest that she is unqualified? That's a Rhodes Scholar, this woman is extraordinary. ... And this whole Benghazi thing has been so politicized, it's time to end this." [Media Matters, 11/25/12]

Wash. Post Editorial Board: Republicans Are Engaged In A "Bizarre Attack On Susan Rice." A November 22 Washington Post editorial headlined "The GOP's bizarre attack on Susan Rice" criticized Republicans who sent a letter alleging, without any evidence, that "there was a White House conspiracy to cover up the truth" about Benghazi and that Rice was part of that conspiracy:

Drawn up by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), the letter alleges that "Ambassador Rice is widely viewed as having either willfully or incompetently misled the American public" about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But as congressional testimony has established, Ms. Rice's comments on several Sunday television talk shows on Sept. 16 were based on talking points drawn up by the intelligence community. She was acting as an administration spokeswoman; there was nothing either incompetent or deliberately misleading about the way she presented the information she was given.

Though the Benghazi attack involved clear failures of U.S. security, Republicans have concentrated on a dubious subsidiary issue: the alleged failure of the administration to publicly recognize quickly enough that the incident was "a terrorist attack." In fact, Mr. Obama has acknowledged that "the information may not have always been right the first time." But if there was a White House conspiracy to cover up the truth, Republicans have yet to produce any evidence of it -- much less a connection to Ms. Rice, who had no involvement with the Benghazi attack other than those television appearances.

Nor was her account of what happened as far off the mark as Republicans claim. Though investigations are not complete, what has emerged so far suggests that the attack was staged by local jihadists, not ordered by the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. Officials believe that it was inspired in part by demonstrations that took place that day in Cairo. That is not so far from Ms. Rice's explanation that "this began as a spontaneous . . . response to what transpired in Cairo." Republicans claim that Ms. Rice "propagated a falsehood" that the attacks were connected to an anti-Islam YouTube video. How then to explain the contemporaneous reports from Western news organizations quoting people at the burning consulate saying that they were angry about the video?

The oddity of the Republican response to what happened in Benghazi is partly this focus on half-baked conspiracy theories rather than on the real evidence of failures by the State Department, Pentagon and CIA in protecting the Benghazi mission. What's even stranger is the singling out of Ms. Rice, a Rhodes scholar and seasoned policymaker who, whatever her failings, is no one's fool. [The Washington Post, 11/22/12]

Wash. Post Columnist Robert Kagan: Attacks On Rice Are Unfair Because There's No Persuasive Evidence That She Was Part Of A Cover Up. Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan asserted on November 16 that the attack on Rice "strikes me as unfair." He added: "I haven't seen persuasive evidence to support the theory that Rice's statements were part of a coverup to hide a terrorist attack":

[T]he idea that Rice should be disqualified because of statements she made on television in the days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, strikes me as unfair. It seems pretty clear now that she based her statements on information the CIA provided at the time. That information proved erroneous, and why the CIA was giving faulty information to senior administration officials remains unclear. I haven't seen persuasive evidence to support the theory that Rice's statements were part of a coverup to hide a terrorist attack. The fact that Rice was working from information provided by the CIA would seem to undercut such a theory. [The Washington Post, 11/16/12]

Independent Sen. Lieberman: Rice Has "Told The Truth And Nothing But The Truth." The New York Times reported that Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats but "has often lined up" with McCain and Graham, said that Rice "had 'told the truth and nothing but the truth' " on this matter. Reuters reported that Lieberman asked Rice "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.'" [New York Times, 11/27/12, Reuters, 11/27/12]

GOP Sen. Isakson: "You Don't Want To Shoot The Messenger." The Hill reported that Republican Senator Johnny Isakson said that he and his peers should focus on how the attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi developed and and less on Susan Rice's Sunday political show appearances saying "you don't want to shoot the messenger":

"She read what she was told to read in those five interviews on that Sunday right after Benghazi," he said. "The first murdered ambassador since 1979. Why do we have false information and not have the intelligence we should have had? Those are answers the American people need." [The Hill, 11/28/12]

But Rather Than Report These Facts, Media Outlets Promoted GOP Accusations That Rice Was Involved In A "Cover-Up"

Wash. Post: Republicans Have Said Rice's Comments "Were Part Of A Cover-Up," And These Attacks Are "Paying Dividends." The Washington Post reported that Republicans have said that Rice's comments about Benghazi "were part of a cover-up" and that such attacks appear "to be paying dividends." The Post also reported that "two in five Americans now believe" that Rice intentionally misled the American public on Benghazi. While the Post included a response from Rice, it did not include any reporting on whether Republican claims that Rice was involved in a cover-up were accurate. 

Susan Rice's meeting with her Republican Congressional critics Tuesday didn't go well, and there are increasing signs that the fallout from the attack in Benghazi is hurting the Obama Administration, according to a new poll.

The new CNN/Opinion Research poll shows that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the Obama Administration's handling of the attack, and 40 percent believe its initial statements about Benghazi were deliberately intended to mislead Americans.

While 40 percent isn't close to a majority, it does suggest that a large number of Americans believe the GOP's charges that Rice's comments were part of a cover-up. And the fact that two in five Americans now believe that there was a cover-up in the Obama White House means Republicans aren't exactly tilting at windmills here. Their charges are catching on with a significant number of Americans.

Following a meeting with the United Nations ambassador this morning, top critic Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he is even more concerned now about the administration's response to the attacks and about Rice's fitness to be Secretary of State.

"Bottom line, I'm more disturbed now than I was before," Graham said, according to the Post's Ed O'Keefe.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) offered a similar take, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that the group that met with Rice is "significantly troubled by many of the answers we got and some that we didn't get."

Rice, for her part, put out a statement to coincide with the meeting that was notably defensive, saying she never meant to mislead the American people when she suggested that the attack in Benghazi was a result of a spontaneous protest sparked by an anti-Islam video.

Republicans have accused the administration of changing the intelligence community's talking points to blame a demonstration rather than a terrorist attack.

"We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process, and the administration updated Congress and the American people as our assessments evolved," Rice said in the statement.

[...]

[Senators Ayotte, Graham, and McCain] have stuck with attacking Rice, and their strategy appears to be paying dividends. [The Washington Post, 11/27/12]

Los Angeles Times: Republicans Have Suggested That Rice "Deliberately Sought To Hide A Terrorist Attack Before The Nov. 6 Election." The Los Angeles Times reported: "Rice burst into the public eye this fall when Republicans seized on her remarks about Benghazi, suggesting she had deliberately sought to hide a terrorist attack before the Nov. 6 election. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said her comments made her 'unqualified' to be secretary of State." The Times added that, despite Rice's attempt to mend fences with her critics, Republicans emerged from their meeting with Rice determined to block her nomination. While the Times included quotes from the White House and Rice defending her actions, the paper made no attempt to independently verify whether Rice had "deliberately sought to hide a terrorist attack."

White House officials circulated word three weeks ago that the former Rhodes scholar was Obama's top pick to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she steps down next year. But three Republican senators made it clear Tuesday after a supposed fence-mending meeting with Rice that they would turn any confirmation hearing into a gloves-off inquiry on how the administration handled the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

"The concerns I have today are greater than they were before," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the lawmakers who has faulted Rice for initially portraying the Sept. 11 attack in Libya as a spontaneous protest rather than a calculated terrorist attack. The White House insists Rice relied solely on information provided to her by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Rice, in a statement after the meeting, acknowledged that her initial description of the attack had been wrong, but insisted that she didn't intend to deceive Americans.

[...]

Carney disputed Republican charges that Rice was less than candid when she appeared on several Sunday TV talk shows five days after the Benghazi attack, a job she was assigned by the White House.

"The focus on -- some might say obsession on -- comments made on Sunday shows seems to me, and to many, to be misplaced," he added.

[...]

Rice burst into the public eye this fall when Republicans seized on her remarks about Benghazi, suggesting she had deliberately sought to hide a terrorist attack before the Nov. 6 election. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said her comments made her "unqualified" to be secretary of State and promised that he and Graham would do "everything in our power" to prevent her from getting the job.

Senate Democrats and White House officials believed most Republicans would not want to pick on an African American woman who is clearly qualified for the job. And Obama, at his first postelection news conference, angrily accused McCain of trying to "besmirch" the reputation of his friend and advisor.

McCain and Graham seemed to back down Sunday, saying they were eager to meet with her. But on Tuesday, the GOP senators again took a hard line. Graham and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) suggested they would put a hold on the nomination, which would suspend Senate consideration, until they get the answers they seek on Benghazi. [Los Angeles Times, 11/27/12]

CNN's Costello: "Those Very Powerful GOP Senators Were Not Happy With The Outcome Of Their Meeting With Ambassador Rice." CNN host Carol Costello repeatedly highlighted Senate Republican critics' displeasure with Rice's Capitol Hill appearance and concluded that she believed that "if President Obama does nominate Susan Rice for Secretary of State, her road to nomination -- it's going to be kind of a train wreck, at least as it stands right now." Costello did not comment on the validity of the criticism offered by McCain, Ayotte and Graham. [CNN, CNN Newsroom11/27/12]

The Wall Street Journal: Rice's "Attempt To Repair Her Standing With Senate Republicans Fell Short." The Wall Street Journal reported that Susan Rice's meeting with her Senate Republican critics "fell short." The Journal quoted Graham as saying "all I can say is that that the concerns I have are greater today than they were before" and they were "not even close to getting basic answers." The Journal quoted from a statement Rice made after the meeting, but never offered an assessment of the validity of the attacks on Rice.

Ambassador Susan Rice's attempt to repair her standing with Senate Republicans fell short Tuesday, as a trio of GOP senators emerged from a meeting with her even more harshly critical of the comments she made following the U.S. consulate attack in Libya.

One of the senators, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, said she would try to block the confirmation of Ms. Rice or another nominee to succeed departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "My view is we should hold on this until we get sufficient information," she said.

Ms. Ayotte and Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the meeting on Capitol Hill left them more concerned than ever about the public statements Ms. Rice made in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. "All I can say is that the concerns I have are greater today than they were before," Mr. Graham said after the meeting. "We're not even close to getting the basic answers."

Ms. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, is seen as a front-runner to succeed Mrs. Clinton. In a statement issued after the meeting, Ms. Rice conceded that part of her comments about the attack in several television interviews days afterward were incorrect, but said they were based on evolving intelligence.

In the interviews, Ms. Rice said the attack grew out of protests over an anti-Islamic video; officials later said there was no protest in Benghazi that day.

"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," she said in her statement. Ms. Rice added that she didn't intend to mislead and said "the administration updated Congress and the American people as our assessments evolved." [The Wall Street Journal, 11/27/12]

New York Times' Dowd: Susan Rice's Coming To The Hill "Caused An Escalation" With Her Republican Critics. In a New York Times op-ed, columnist Maureen Dowd blamed Rice for McCain, Ayotte and Graham's continued questioning of her and her September 16 appearance on Sunday morning political shows. Dowd failed to assess the appropriateness of their reaction to their meeting with Rice given the facts:

When Rice asked to come to the Hill to meet with some of her Republican critics, it seemed détente was nigh. But somehow the hour-and-a-half powwow caused an escalation, with McCain, Graham and Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire emerging to say they had more reservations than before.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who's scheduled to meet with Rice on Wednesday, suggested that she would be better suited to run the Democratic National Committee than State. If Rice can't soothe the egos of some cranky G.O.P. pols, how would she negotiate with China?

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the soft-spoken ranking member on the homeland security committee, hasn't been part of this shrill debate. Though they had met only once or twice, Collins agreed to introduce Rice to the Foreign Relations Committee in 2009 when Rice was nominated as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Rice's grandparents immigrated from Jamaica to Portland, Maine.

"I don't bear any animus to her at all," the senator said. "In fact, to the contrary."

But she said she is "troubled" by Rice's role. "If I wanted to be secretary of state," Collins observed, "I would not go on television and perform what was essentially a political role." [The New York Times, 11/27/12]

For more on the problems with Dowd's column, see here.

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