WASHINGTON – Five days after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice described what precipitated the deadly incident based on initial intelligence that later proved incorrect, the deputy CIA director told Congress on Thursday.
In a closed-door session with the House Intelligence committee, Mike Morell said Rice was provided with an unclassified version of events at the U.S. mission in Benghazi that left American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead, according to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the panel.
The assessment concluded that a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video had evolved into an attack on the American consulate, a description that Rice presented in television interviews the Sunday morning after the attack.
Schiff told reporters that he didn't think the intelligence community had politicized the information. "They gave us the best initial assessments, and those proved inaccurate, but they warned us those assessments were subject to change as they got more information," he said.
Rice's comments on national television have drawn fierce criticism, with some Senate Republicans promising to block her nomination if President Barack Obama taps her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama angrily defended Rice on Wednesday at a White House news conference and called the complaints outrageous attempts to besmirch her reputation.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, said Rice "was given that same information we received from the administration through the intelligence community. And that's the information she testified to, end of story."
In one of her TV interviews, Rice said she was providing the "best information and the best assessment we have today."
"In fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video," she said. "People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent. Those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control."
That answer has drawn constant criticism from Republicans, who question why Rice failed to call the event a terrorist attack. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said they would work to defeat Rice's selection if she is nominated to be the nation's top diplomat. Graham said Wednesday that he couldn't back anyone who is "up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle."
Ruppersberger said the initial attack on the consulate was chaotic, with "a lot of people running around," while the second attack, on a CIA annex near the consulate, "seemed a lot more sophisticated," with the use of mortars, more clearly pointing to terrorist training and tactics.
Obama aides say the president's vigorous defense of Rice during the news conference should not be seen as a sign that he plans to nominate her for the top job at the State Department. Instead, they said it reflects a frustration within the administration that Rice, a longtime Obama adviser, is being unfairly targeted by Republican lawmakers.
Rice continues to have strong support within the White House as a candidate for the top post at the State Department. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, remains a leading contender as well.
Obama aides say the president hasn't made a decision on that job or others opening in his administration, and may not do so until after Thanksgiving.
In the meantime, several House and Senate committees are conducting hearings on the Libya attack, with the Senate Intelligence Committee meeting Thursday afternoon with Morell and other administration officials. The panels will hear from former CIA Director David Petraeus on Friday, one week after he resigned amid the revelation of an extramarital affair.
The lawmakers were shown video of the Benghazi attack taken by an unarmed CIA Predator drone, said a congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because the aide was not allowed to comment on the closed hearing. Drones are regularly used for surveillance of Libyan militant groups, with the Libyan government's assent.
Clinton has agreed to appear before Congress to answer questions about the Benghazi attack. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Clinton will testify after an independent Accountability Review Board presents its findings. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she expects the report's completion in December and that Clinton will appear at that time.
Toner said he could not say when the review board would complete its work, but other State Department officials have said it may not be finished until January, meaning that any Clinton appearance could be delayed.
McCain and Graham have called for the creation of a Watergate-style select committee to investigate the attack, but there is little interest in that step beyond a few GOP lawmakers. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the existing congressional committees should handle the work.