Ayotte: ‘Substantial questions’ remain about Sept. 11 Benghazi attacks
Senate Armed Services Committee member, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., right, accompanied by fellow committee member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., center, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, following a meeting with UN Ambassador Susan Rice . Rice met with lawmakers to discuss statements she made about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that left the ambassador and three other Americans dead. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte yesterday emerged so troubled from a meeting with one of the nation’s top diplomats about the September terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that she said she cannot yet support President Obama’s likely nominee to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Along with Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ayotte has been sharply critical of the erroneous information U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice provided about the Sept. 11 attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The three Republicans met with Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell yesterday. The meeting didn’t alleviate any of their worries, the senators said afterward.
“There’s still substantial questions that need to be answered, and there’s still information we need to obtain,” Ayotte said in an interview with the Monitor.
Days after the terrorist attacks, Rice appeared on several Sunday morning talk shows and didn’t mention that al-Qaida had been involved. Instead, she said the attack was partly a reaction to a YouTube video insulting to Muslims.
Obama administration officials have said Rice was relying on talking points issued by intelligence agencies that did not include the critical classified information about al-Qaida.
But confusion has arisen about the talking points given to Rice – there were two versions, officials say.
One version included the information about al-Qaida. A later version, which officials said Rice used, did not. Intelligence officials say they deleted the references to al-Qaida in the later version.
Ayotte and others counter that Rice, who they say receives daily intelligence briefings, knew people involved in the attack had ties to al-Qaida.
Rice either didn’t question enough what the intelligence officials put in the talking points or provided the American people with misleading information, Ayotte and the other Republicans said.
“I came into the meeting with this impression that . . . she just took the unclassified talking points, parroted them back and really had not reviewed the classified information. That’s not true,” Ayotte said. Rice had “reviewed the version that had the reference to al-Qaida omitted,” she said.
Moreover, Ayotte said, it’s unclear which intelligence official changed the talking points.
Yesterday morning, she said Morell claimed the FBI deleted the al-Qaida references to protect an ongoing criminal investigation. But in the afternoon, she said the CIA took responsibility for the deletion.
There’s still no explanation for the confusion, Ayotte said.
She said the events before and during the attack also need to be explained.
“Why wasn’t our consulate secured more? Or if we couldn’t secure it sufficiently, why didn’t we close our consulate? Those are the important questions beforehand that have not been sufficiently answered. And in fact I’ve been seeking access to the State Department cables, and so far I haven’t been able to get access to those,” Ayotte said. “But I should be able to as a member of the Senate.”
Ayotte, Graham and McCain initially wanted to see a new Senate committee established to do a single investigation into the attack in Benghazi – several committees have jurisdiction and it would be better to streamline the process, the senators said.
Other senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said such a move is unnecessary, making its establishment unlikely. Ayotte said she hopes the House of Representatives will take up the matter instead.
Foreign policy in focus
It was a foreign-policy focused day for Ayotte, who moderated a discussion about foreign affairs with Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who used to be a Democrat. Ayotte also discussed her concerns about Benghazi at a press conference and on Fox News and CNN.
“If there were representations made – which there were – that left a misleading impression to the American people about the nature of the attacks that occurred on Benghazi, why wouldn’t we want to get to the bottom of that?” Ayotte said. “I think those are fair questions and important questions.”
In a briefing with reporters yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated what he has said in the past: that Rice was relying on what she believed was the most up-to-date information available.
“The focus on talking points is misplaced,” Carney said. “They were initial assessments, and they evolved as more information was gathered.”
In a prepared statement released yesterday, Rice echoed Carney, saying she relied on information from intelligence officials that was “incorrect in a key respect: there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi.”
“(N)either 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.
Clinton era winding down
Yesterday’s events came as Clinton has begun to wind down her tenure and Obama has started to lay the groundwork for congressional hearings for the next secretary of state. Rice, a Rhodes scholar and adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign, was considered a top choice.
Ayotte does not sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, which vets the nominees for secretary of state.
But, if Rice is approved by the committee, Ayotte could use a parliamentary procedure known as a hold to block the nomination.
Ayotte said she would consider using a hold to block Rice’s nomination if her questions weren’t sufficiently answered.
“I’ve said I haven’t made up my mind what we would do with a nomination,” Ayotte said. “If it’s two months from now and we’ve gotten the information that we’re seeking, then obviously at that point it’s just whether I would support her or not.”
The New Hampshire senator who does sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, said yesterday on MSNBC that Rice has done a “very good job at the United Nations.”
Shaheen said it’s unfortunate that much of the discussion about Rice and Benghazi has gotten “personal,” but she’s hopeful Rice will get a fair hearing – if nominated.
“Sen. McCain is a patriot; I think he’ll give her a fair hearing,” Shaheen said on MSNBC. “I certainly think that of my colleague from New Hampshire, Sen. Ayotte, and of Lindsey Graham.”
In a statement emailed to the Monitor, Shaheen said she was looking forward to meeting with Rice or “whoever is nominated by the President to become our next Secretary of State.”
“Like any nominee, Ambassador Rice will face an extensive vetting process if she were to be selected for the position. I look forward to her coming before the committee to answer a broad range of questions on national security issues, including Benghazi. Ambassador Rice is clearly qualified for the position,” Shaheen wrote.