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Clapper changed the talking points, but Rice still on the hot seat

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is seemingly off the hook for her controversial Sept. 16 comments on Benghazi, but the opposition to her confirmation remains as her critics broaden their objections to her possible candidacy along with the administration’s handling of the Benghazi issue. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made the decision to remove the ...

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is seemingly off the hook for her controversial Sept. 16 comments on Benghazi, but the opposition to her confirmation remains as her critics broaden their objections to her possible candidacy along with the administration's handling of the Benghazi issue.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made the decision to remove the words "terrorism" and "al Qaeda" from the unclassified talking points that Rice based her comments on in the days following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, it was revealed this week. But senators who have promised to try to block Rice's potential nomination to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are altering their message while continuing to oppose Rice's ascension.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is seemingly off the hook for her controversial Sept. 16 comments on Benghazi, but the opposition to her confirmation remains as her critics broaden their objections to her possible candidacy along with the administration’s handling of the Benghazi issue.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made the decision to remove the words "terrorism" and "al Qaeda" from the unclassified talking points that Rice based her comments on in the days following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, it was revealed this week. But senators who have promised to try to block Rice’s potential nomination to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are altering their message while continuing to oppose Rice’s ascension.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has already started campaigning for his 2014 reelection campaign by focusing on the Benghazi attack, released a letter to President Barack Obama Wednesday demanding to know when he personally was aware of the intelligence on the attack and why he chose Rice to speak for the administration.

"We have now learned that the talking points provided to Ambassador Susan Rice on or around September 15 describing the assault on our consulate in Benghazi were disconnected from the actual intelligence. According to numerous sources, including CIA Director David Petraeus and the CIA station chief on the ground in Libya, the perpetrators of the attack were identified to be al Qaeda linked militia almost immediately," Graham wrote. "In spite of the FBI report and all other available intelligence, the talking points given to Ambassador Rice suggesting the attack was spontaneous, based on a hateful video, and similar to the attacks in Cairo, was completely disconnected from the intelligence."

Last week, President Obama challenged critics of Rice’s Benghazi statements, including his 2008 opponent John McCain (R-AZ), to take him on directly, saying, "If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me."

With this letter, Graham has obliged, shifting the accusation of misleading the American public on Benghazi from Rice to the president by questioning whehter Obama knew about the details of the intelligence reports and, if so, why he emphasized the anti-Islam video in several television appearances in the days after the attack. Graham also implies that Obama chose poorly by asking Rice to represent the administration on the issue.

"As for Ambassador Susan Rice, by the time she addressed the nation on five Sunday shows on September 16, the classified intelligence clearly refuted the scenario she described," Graham wrote. "So why was Ambassador Rice, who in your words ‘had nothing to do with Benghazi,’ chosen to explain the attack to the American people?  Why wasn’t someone with first-hand knowledge of the attack on our Consulate, or first-hand knowledge of the Administration’s response during the critical hours our consulate was under attack, selected for this opportunity?"

McCain has also shifted his emphasis from Rice’s comments to the White House’s handling of the Benghazi issue overall. On Nov. 19, he said he would oppose any nomination for secretary of state, not just Rice, until his questions on Benghazi were answered.

In a Nov. 20 statement, McCain said that Clapper professed not to know who altered the CIA-drafted Benghazi talking points during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week, which the Arizona senator attended.

"I participated in hours of hearings in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week regarding the events in Benghazi, where senior intelligence officials were asked this very question, and all of them — including the Director of National Intelligence himself — told us that they did not know who made the changes. Now we have to read the answers to our questions in the media," McCain said. "There are many other questions that remain unanswered. But this latest episode is another reason why many of us are so frustrated with, and suspicious of, the actions of this administration when it comes to the Benghazi attack."

Meanwhile, commentators have expanded their criticism of Rice’s potential nomination to include several issues not related to Benghazi. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank this week highlighted longstanding concerns by some Rice critics that her style is too confrontational.

The New York Times noted this week Rice’s comment during her time in the Clinton administration when she asked aloud whether using the term "genocide" in reference to mass killings in Rwanda would hurt the president politically before the midterm elections.

Rice might also be pressed during a potential confirmation hearing to defend the Obama administration’s reluctance to further intervene in Syria. She told then journalist, now White House official Samantha Power after Rwanda that she would never again let such a humanitarian tragedy unfold on her watch.

"I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required," Rice said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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