WASHINGTON — The partisan political divide over the potential nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of state intensified Sunday with Republicans questioning her fitness for the job and Democrats defending her.
Republican senators said they remain deeply concerned over Rice's statements about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and suggested her motive was to help President Barack Obama's re-election chances. Democrats, meanwhile, said they saw no reason the statements should disqualify her if she's nominated.
At issue is the explanation Rice offered in a series of talk show appearances five days after the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Rice has conceded in private meetings with lawmakers that her initial account — that a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. triggered the attack — was wrong, but she has insisted she was not trying to mislead the American people. That account was provided by intelligence officials who have since said their understanding of the attack evolved as more information came to light.
Appearing on Sunday talk shows, two of Rice's fiercest critics, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Rice's account went beyond talking points that the intelligence agencies gave her. For one, they noted she had said that security at the Benghazi mission was "strong, substantial and significant."
That statement "was not supported by the talking points," Ayotte said, noting that Rice was privy to more than just the unclassified material she discussed on television, including secret intelligence briefings that pointed to al-Qaida involvement in the attack.
"I think her story on 16th of September was a political story designed to help the president three weeks before the election, and she should be held accountable for that," Graham said. He added that Rice's comments were "a treasure trove of misleading statements that have the effect of helping the president."
Rice met with both Graham and Ayotte last week to explain the situation, but Graham said Rice "didn't do herself much good" in the encounter.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he and others questioned whether Rice was acting as a diplomat or a "political operative."
Democrats, though, said Rice is being unfairly victimized for repeating erroneous talking points circulated by the intelligence community.
"Nothing that I have heard, in my mind, would disqualify her" from being secretary of state, said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said what's happening to Rice is "terribly unfair" and a brighter light should be shone on the role of former CIA chief David Petraeus and his agency.
"The talking points came from the intelligence community, yet you don't hear one criticism of David Petraeus. It was his shop that produced the talking points that Susan Rice talked about. ... Is there a double standard here? It appears to most of us that there is. A very unfair one," she said.
"It is terribly unfair that she should be the scapegoat for this when really the failures ought to be at the lap of the head of the intelligence community that produced these talking points but none of these guys will say a word about David Petraeus," McCaskill added.
Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she thought one of the problems was the distribution of unclassified talking points and suggested that incomplete information should not be put out, particularly if it differed from classified material.
All the lawmakers said they believed that inadequate security at the mission must be investigated and corrected so that Benghazi is not repeated.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he the lack of security constituted "gross negligence."
Ayotte and Warner were on CNN's "State of the Union." Corker and McCaskill spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press" and Graham, Feinstein and Rogers appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."