(CNSNews.com) – In an escalating war of words over the administration’s handling of the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday President Obama had “failed as Commander in Chief before, during, and after the attack” and reiterated he would not support a cabinet post for “anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle.”
Graham was responding to the president’s robust defense of Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, viewed as a strong prospect for Obama’s second-term secretary of state, who is in Republican senators’ crosshairs over the Benghazi affair.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and members Graham and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) want a Senate select committee of the kind that investigated Watergate to probe the attack, which cost the lives of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
During his White House press conference, Obama slammed the senators for challenging Rice, who told a series of Sunday talk shows on September 16 that the attack on the U.S. consulate five days earlier had, according to the best information available at the time, been a “spontaneous reaction” to an obscure online video clip mocking Mohammed (see below for her remarks).
“As I’ve said before, she made an appearance [on television] at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her,” Obama said.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he continued. “And I’m happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous.”
Obama also said he had yet to make a decision on a successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but that if he thought Rice “would be the best person to serve America” in that capacity, he would nominate her.
Shortly after Obama spoke Graham issued a terse statement: “Mr. President, don’t think for one minute I don’t hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as Commander in Chief before, during, and after the attack.
“We owe it to the American people and the victims of this attack to have full, fair hearings and accountability be assigned where appropriate,” he said. “Given what I know now, I have no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle.”
McCain also responded to Obama’s remarks.
“I have always said that the buck stops with the President of the United States, particularly for his contradictory statements in the Rose Garden, on ‘60 Minutes’ and in later venues alleging that the obvious terrorist attack in Benghazi was triggered by a spontaneous demonstration and a hateful video, or that we didn’t know the cause,” he said in a statement.
“Those statements clearly did not comport with the facts on the ground. We owe the American people and the families of the murdered Americans a full and complete explanation, which for two months the President has failed to deliver. Given all these facts, a Select Committee must be appointed in order to obtain a full and complete accounting which would be credible with the American people.”
At a press conference on Capitol Hill earlier in the day, Graham said he did not trust Rice “because I think she knew better, and if she didn’t know better, she shouldn’t be the voice of America.”
McCain said it was his judgment that the comments made by Rice on Sept. 16 were “clearly false.”
The administration has repeatedly defended Rice for her comments, emphasizing that she had made clear she was basing them on intelligence assessments at the time.
Just two days earlier, the State Department had told reporters that there would be no further comment on Benghazi until the Justice Department, investigating the incident, was ready to talk about it. The White House decision to send Rice out to promote the video theory fed Republican suspicion of a cover-up.
The select committee being proposed by the GOP senators would comprise four Republican and four Democratic senators, tasked to submit an interim report to the Senate within five months of its appointment and a final one within 10 months.
“Two months after this deadly attack, we still have more questions than answers,” Ayotte said Wednesday. “The American people deserve to know exactly what happened in Benghazi, and it’s Congress’ job to ensure there is a full accounting of the failures that led to this tragedy.”
“A stovepipe approach, with individual committees pursuing their own investigations, won’t give us the answers we need,” she said. “This was a broad failure of government, and we need a single committee that can cut across agency and congressional committee jurisdictions in order to conduct a comprehensive review and make recommendations.”
Rice does the talk show round
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.”
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.”