U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is under scrutiny for remarks she made after… (Bebeto Matthews, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Sunday targeted U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's talking points about the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, vowing to find out who changed the original language and why.
The incident left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Days later, Rice said the administration's preliminary view was that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video, rather than a planned terrorist attack.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told NBC's "Meet the Press" that former CIA Director David H. Petraeus had "very clearly said that it was a terrorist attack" in a meeting with lawmakers the day after the incident.
Asked why Rice would not call the Benghazi attack terrorism, Feinstein said it was because Petraeus' view was based on information that had not been cleared for public review.
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"She could speak publicly only on unclassified speaking points," said Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I have some concern with those speaking points.... We are going to find out who made changes in the original statement. Until we do, I really think it's unwarranted to make accusations."
Feinstein said she had initiated a review of the talking points, but added that Rice should not be "pilloried" for adhering to them and disputed that the administration had tried to cover up the true nature of the attack.
In testimony to the House and Senate intelligence committees Friday, Petraeus said he believed almost immediately that the Sept. 11 assault was an organized terrorist attack, according to lawmakers and staff sources. But he said the administration withheld its suspicion that extremists with links to Al Qaeda were involved in order to avoid tipping off the terrorist groups.
Petraeus also said some early classified reports appeared to support Rice's statement that the deadly raid had grown out of a protest that had been hijacked by extremists.
The initial draft of Rice's talking points called the Benghazi incident an "attack," which was changed to "demonstration," Republicans said after Petraeus testified, and the phrase "with ties to Al Qaeda" was removed.
On Sunday, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, stopped short of saying information had been withheld for political reasons.
Still, he said, "I know the narrative was wrong, and the intelligence was right."
"The narrative, as it went from at least the CIA and other intelligence agencies, was accurate," he said. "There were some policy decisions made based on the narrative that [were] not consistent with the intelligence that we had. That's my concern, and we need to say, hey, we need to figure out how that happened."
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Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor, told reporters traveling with the president to Asia that any substantive changes would have come from intelligence agencies. The only change the White House and the State Department made, he said, was to correct a reference to the Benghazi site as a "diplomatic facility" instead of a "consulate."
Some lawmakers have vowed to prevent Rice from becoming secretary of State if Obama should nominate her to replace the departing Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Rice had misled the American people.
"I am very disappointed in Susan Rice … telling a story that was disconnected from reality that did make the president look good at a time when, quite frankly, the narrative should have been challenged, not reinforced, that Al Qaeda was dismantled," Graham said on "Meet the Press."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CBS' "Face the Nation" that Rice had "a lot of explaining to do."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, accused McCain and Graham of hypocrisy.
"Eight years ago when President Bush suggested Condoleezza Rice for secretary of State, some people said, 'Well, wait a minute, wasn't she part of misleading the American people about intelligence information that led to our invasion of Iraq?' And it was Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham who stood up and said, 'Don't hold her accountable for the intelligence that was given to her,'" Durbin said.