Libya Debacle: Why Didn’t Rice Simply Decline to Comment?

By Patrick Goodenough | October 11, 2012 | 4:39am EDT

Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, takes part in a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo)

( – As administration officials continue to defend U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice over her remarks attributing the September 11 attack in Benghazi to protests against an anti-Islam video, the question still unanswered is why Rice said anything at all.

Five days after the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Rice told a series of Sunday talk shows that, according to the best information available at the time, the incident was a “spontaneous reaction” to an online video clip denigrating Mohammed, rather than an unrelated terrorist attack.

Since then, she and other administration officials have sought to defend her Sept. 16 comments by pointing to her caveat – that she was basing the position on intelligence assessments at the time.

The latest official to defend Rice was Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, who told a House Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday, “If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, September 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said.”

“The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point,” Kennedy continued. “As time went on, additional information became available. Clearly, we know more today than we did on the Sunday after the attack.”

But why Rice went on television in the first place that day to talk about the episode remains puzzling. Just two days earlier the State Department informed reporters that it would answer no more questions on the attack on the Benghazi consulate “until the Justice Department is ready to talk about the investigation.”

By going on air to promote the video theory, Rice – a senior official in the State Department touted as a potential future secretary of state – was going against her own department’s declared decision to keep mum while the probe continued. That she did so at all has fuelled Republican suspicions that the administration was trying to spin the events for political ends.

At Wednesday’s House committee hearing, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said the administration had attributed the deadly attack to the video, “despite what would appear to any reasonably objective observer as an escalating pattern of violence [in Libya over many months], including sophistication, coordination and management.”

He called for the committee to hold a further hearing at which Rice could be questioned under oath.

“You come before this committee and tell us who told you it was a video,” Gowdy said. “Who in the intelligence committee said it? Who in the diplomatic community blamed this all on the video?”

‘Breathtaking level of incompetence’

Last month Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Ron Johnson (Wisc.), sent a letter to Rice, asking her to explain how she had “characterize[d] an attack on a U.S. consulate so inaccurately five days after a terrorist attack that killed four Americans.”

In a written response last Thursday, Rice told the senators that in answering questions during the Sunday television interviews, “I relied solely and squarely on the information the intelligence community provided to me and other senior U.S. officials, including through the daily intelligence briefings that present the latest reporting and analysis to policy makers.”

The four senators were not satisfied, however.

“Elements of the intelligence community apparently told the administration within hours of the attack that militants connected with al-Qaeda were involved, yet Ambassador Rice claims her comments five days later reflected the ‘best’ and ‘current’ assessment of the intelligence community,” they said in a statement on Friday. “Either the Obama administration is misleading Congress and the American people, or it is blaming the entire failure on the intelligence community.”

“From beginning to end, the administration’s behavior in the wake of the attack indicates a breathtaking level of incompetence and suggests an intent to deliberately mislead Congress and the American people,” the senators added.

On Tuesday, McCain, Graham, Ayotte and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) directed questions at Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus and deputy national security advisor John Brennan, asking for their help in clarifying the record.

Asserting that “[t]he American people deserve answers,” the senators listed specific questions:

-- “First, within 48 hours of the attack, was there credible information and reporting to suggest that the assault on our consulate and other U.S. facilities in Benghazi should be characterized as a terrorist attack?”

-- “Second, at what time did intelligence community agencies or elements first assess that the events in Benghazi were a terrorist attack?”

-- “Finally, what information did you and the intelligence community provide to senior policymakers that led some of them to draw the conclusion as late as five days after the attack in Benghazi that it was the result of a spontaneous demonstration [against the video], not a terrorist act?”

Talk show quotes

On September 14, three days after the Benghazi attack, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a daily press briefing there would be no further comment from the department on the issue.

“I am going to frustrate all of you infinitely by telling you that now that we have an open FBI investigation on the death of these four Americans, we are not going to be in a position to talk at all about what the U.S. government may or may not be learning about how any of this happened – not who they were, not how they happened, not what happened to Ambassador Stevens, not any of it – until the Justice Department is ready to talk about the investigation that it’s got,” she said.

“So I’m going to send you to the FBI on any of those kinds of questions, and they’re probably not going to talk to you about them while the investigation is open.”

Two days later, Rice appeared to contradict that position, telling ABC’s This Week:

“First of all, it's important to know that there’s an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired.  But 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.

“… What happened this week in Cairo, in Benghazi, in many other parts of the region was a result – a direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated, that the U.S. government had nothing to do with, which we have made clear is reprehensible and disgusting.”

She told CBS’ Face the Nation:

“Based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy – sparked by this hateful video. But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that – in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent ... We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.”

Rice told NBC’s Meet the Press:

“Putting together the best information that we have available to us today our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of – of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.  What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding.”

And on Fox News Sunday, Rice said:

“But what sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful very offensive video that has offended many people around the world.”

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