An escalating showdown between President Barack Obama and leading Republican lawmakers over a deadly September attack in Libya turned angry and personal Wednesday.
Obama accused Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., of trying to "besmirch" the reputation of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and to hold her potential nomination as secretary of state hostage to their demand for a broad Watergate- and Iran-contra-style investigation of alleged intelligence and security lapses that led to the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said at his first news conference since last week's election. Glaring across the East Room of the White House, he called the accusations against Rice "outrageous" and said she had "nothing to do with Benghazi."
Just minutes after Obama spoke, Graham issued a statement saying, "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." As for Rice, Graham said, "I have no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle."
The bitter exchange came on the eve of closed-door hearings by the Senate and House intelligence committees on the Sept. 11 incident, which the administration now says was an organized terrorist attack. U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the assault.
The Senate Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees also have indicated that they will hold hearings on the attack, which is also the subject of an internal State Department investigation. McCain, Graham and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., on Wednesday introduced a resolution calling for the Senate panels to be combined into a temporary select committee. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has proposed a similar select committee in the House.
The resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus, who left office Friday after an FBI investigation uncovered an extramarital affair and possible national security breaches, also has become ensnared in the Benghazi controversy.
Petraeus, who had traveled to Libya to investigate the attack, has agreed to testify before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who said details of his appearance "will be worked out." The administration had said that Michael Morell, the CIA's acting director, would appear in place of Petraeus at separate hearings Thursday before the House and Senate intelligence panels; the House committee announced Wednesday night that Petraeus would appear before it in a closed session Friday morning.
At his news conference, Obama suggested that Republican vehemence on the Benghazi issue overall and toward Rice in particular stemmed from bitterness over Mitt Romney's loss in the presidential election. "You know, we're after an election now," Obama said.
At issue in the various investigations is whether the administration ignored requests for more security assistance in Libya, failed to respond quickly once the Benghazi diplomatic outpost came under attack or has subsequently tried to conceal its actions. Some Republicans have suggested that the White House tried to avoid preelection negative publicity.
In a Sept. 12 statement, Obama referred to "acts of terror" in condemning the Benghazi killings. But for more than a week afterward, Obama and other administration officials said the attack had begun as one of a number of spontaneous, anti-U.S. street demonstrations that day that swept the Arab world in protest of a privately produced video, deemed insulting to Islam, that had been posted on YouTube.
Rice, who was designated by the White House to appear on five television talk shows the Sunday after the attack, was the most prominent spokesperson for the initial characterization of the assault as a protest that turned violent. As one of the country's most senior diplomats, she was seen as "uniquely qualified" to speak not only about dangers to diplomats in general and the deaths in Benghazi, but also about "the broader unrest in the region at the time," with anti-U.S. demonstrations reported in at least 22 nations, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Wednesday.
The early information about what happened, the administration has since said, came directly from the CIA. Only later, officials said, was it clear that militant groups using heavy weapons, some of them with ties to al-Qaida, had stormed the Benghazi compound in a coordinated attack that indicated at least some element of planning.
Some documents released by the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee revealed requests by the top U.S. security officer in Libya for additional help. The State Department supplied two large binders of diplomatic cables and other documents to Congress ahead of this week's hearings.
But Republicans have complained that the administration has been slow to produce requested documents on the matter and has made examination procedures unnecessarily cumbersome. Senate staffers said the documents provided contained no major revelations about security conditions ahead of the attack.
McCain, Graham and Ayotte said in a news conference Wednesday morning, and when they later introduced their resolution on the Senate floor, that scattered testimony among a number of panels was inefficient and that a select committee was the only way to get at the truth.
Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, indicated that they were not convinced that the individual committees could not handle the matter.
McCain and his colleagues reserved their most incendiary words for Rice, and the Arizona Republican said they would do "whatever's necessary to block the nomination that's within our power."
Obama said he had made no decisions on cabinet changes, but senior administration officials have made no secret of the fact that Rice is the president's top choice to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. Rice, who was among a handful of Obama supporters when he began his run for president in 2007, is in his "inner, inner circle," one official said.
Rice, Obama said Wednesday, "has done exemplary work. She has represented the United States and our interests in the United Nations with skill, and professionalism, and toughness, and grace."
If the senators want to talk about Benghazi, he said angrily, "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."
Less than an hour later, McCain took to the Senate floor to say: "I understand the president of the United States today took some umbrage at our statements."
Whoever is accountable for the Benghazi attack "must be held responsible," the senator said. "This president and this administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a coverup."
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Ed O'Keefe, Anne Gearan and Julie Tate contributed to this report.