Benghazi story served up by eager Rice has proved a recipe for trouble

Mon, Nov 19, 2012, 00:00

US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is a political casualty of the LIbyan attack, writes MAUREEN DOWD

Our Rice is better than your Rice. That’s the argument Democrats are aggressively making against Republicans.

And it’s true. Condoleezza Rice sold her soul. Susan Rice merely rented hers on the talk shows one Sunday in September.

Ambitious to be secretary of state, Condi jilted her mentor, Brent Scowcroft, who publicly opposed the Iraq invasion. In 2002 she bolted to the winning, warmongering side with George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, helping them twist intelligence and getting the state department in return.

Ambitious to be secretary of state, Susan Rice wanted to prove she had the gravitas for the job and help out the White House. So the ambassador to the UN agreed to a National Security Council (NSC) request to go on all five Sunday shows to talk about the attack on the US consulate in Libya.

“She saw this as a great opportunity to go out and close the stature gap,” said one administration official. “She was focused on the performance, not the content. People said, ‘It’s sad because it was one of her best performances.’ But it’s not a movie, it’s the news. Everyone in politics thinks, you just get your good talking points and learn them and reiterate them on camera. But what if they’re not good talking points? What if what you’re saying isn’t true, even if you’re saying it well?”

Testifying on Capitol Hill on Friday, the beheaded head spook David Petraeus said the CIA knew quickly the Benghazi raid was a terrorist attack. “It was such a no-brainer,” one intelligence official told me.

Intelligence officials suspected affiliates of al-Qaeda and named them in their original talking points for Rice, but that information was deemed classified and was softened to “extremists” as the talking points were cycled past the department of justice, the state department, the NSC and other intelligence analysts.

As Eric Schmitt of the New York Times wrote, some analysts worried that identifying the groups “could reveal that American spy services were eavesdropping on the militants – a fact most insurgents are already aware of”.

Rice was given the toned-down talking points but she has access to classified information. Though she told Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation that the extremist elements could have included al-Qaeda affiliates or al-Qaeda itself, she mostly used her appearances to emphasise the story line of the spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video. She disputed the contention of the president of Libya’s general national congress, who called the attack “preplanned” when he spoke to Schieffer just before Rice.

Some have wondered if Rice, who has a bull-in-a-china-shop reputation, is sufficiently diplomatic for the top diplomatic job. But she would have been wise to be more bull-in-a-china-shop and vet her talking points, given that members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities and sources in news accounts considered it a terrorist attack days before Rice went on the shows. (The president also clung to the video story for too long.)

Rice should have been wary of a White House staff with a tendency to gild the lily, with her pal Valerie Jarrett and other staffers zealous about casting the president in a more flattering light, like national security officials filigreeing the story of the raid on Osama to say bin Laden fought back. Did administration officials foolishly assume that if affiliates of al-Qaeda were to blame it would dilute the credit the president got for decimating al-Qaeda? Were aides overeager to keep Mitt Romney, who had stumbled after the Benghazi attack by accusing the president of appeasing Islamic extremists, on the defensive?

Writing in a 2002 book about Bill Clinton’s failure to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda, Samantha Power, now an NSC official, suggested Rice had been swayed by domestic politics when, as a rising star at the NSC who would soon become Clinton’s director for African affairs, she mused about the 1994 midterm elections: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

An Africa expert, Rice should have realised that when a gang showed up with RPGs and mortars in a place known as a hotbed of al-Qaeda sympathisers and Islamic extremist training camps, it was not anger over a movie. She should have been savvy enough to wonder why the wily Hillary Clinton was avoiding the talk shows.

The president’s fierce defence of Rice had virile flare. But he might have been better off leaving it to aides, so he did not end up mano a mano with his nemesis John McCain on an appointment he hasn’t even made, and so he could focus on fiscal cliff bipartisanship.

His argument that Rice “had nothing to do with Benghazi” raises the question: why then was she the point person?

The president’s protection of a diplomatic damsel in distress made Rice look more vulnerable, when her reason for doing those shows in the first place was to look more venerable.

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