Clinton Ducks Question on Why She Didn't Explain Benghazi on Sunday Shows

By Patrick Goodenough | November 29, 2012 | 5:09 AM EST

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice delivers a commencement address at the U.N. International School in New York on May 31, 2012. (U.N. Photo by J.C. McIlwaine)

( – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday praised U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice – the target of Republican criticism relating to last September’s terror attack in Libya – and noted that the decision on her successor as secretary of state was President Obama’s.

In doing so, Clinton sidestepped a reporter’s question about why the administration, on the Sunday after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, had deployed Rice rather than Clinton herself to present its case on the Sunday talk shows.

Critics charge that Rice misled the American people by attributing the attack – which killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans – to protests over an online video clip denigrating Mohammed. Some Republican senators have indicated they will not support Rice for secretary of state if Obama nominates her for the post.

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During a joint press appearance at the State Department with African Union chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Clinton was asked: “Some are saying since the State Department is responsible for embassies, why wasn’t it you who was on the talk shows on Sunday, as opposed to Ambassador Rice?”

After replying to an unrelated question, Clinton turned to the Rice issue – but in her response did not directly address why the ambassador had done the talk show round on behalf of the administration, rather than Clinton.

“Let me just say, first of all, that Susan Rice has done a great job as our ambassador to the United Nations,” Clinton said. “And of course, this decision about my successor is up to the president, but I’m very happy he has the opportunity, with a second term, to make a decision.”

“I’m not going to answer any hypothetical questions about what could’ve happened but didn’t happen,” she continued. “I’m looking forward to being able to discuss all of the issues pertaining to this after the conclusion of the Accountability Review Board.”

“My responsibility was to appoint such a board, which I did immediately. They have been hard at work. We are hoping that they will be finished with their work very soon, and we intend to make the results of their investigation publicly, and at that time I will be able to address all of these issues.”

The review board is chaired by the retired former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.

At a press briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked why Rice had been chosen to speak to the television shows on the Sunday in question, and described her as “a principal on the president’s foreign policy team.”

“There were threats to embassy facilities around the region and the country,” he said. “It was entirely appropriate for Ambassador Rice to appear on the air to take questions about the president’s approach to policy towards the unrest that was occurring as a result of the [Mohammed] video.”

Asked why someone more directly tied to the matter, such as Clinton, had not been selected, Carney responded, “It could have been me. It could have been Ambassador Rice. I mean, I took questions on this too. And we all relied on information from the intelligence community.”

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

Citing an FBI investigation into the attack, Nuland said “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.”

Just two days later Rice – who falls under the State Department – was put forward to answer questions on the issue.

She appeared on ABC’s "This Week," CBS’ "Face the Nation," NBC’s "Meet the Press" and "Fox News Sunday," and the gist of her remarks was that the attack had, according to the best information available at the time, been a “spontaneous reaction” to the video clip.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow