Obama and Republicans spar over Benghazi

 

Washington

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."

- - -

Ed O'Keefe, Anne Gearan and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Arts & Entertainment
tv
News
Matthew Mcnulty and Jessica Brown Findlay in 'Jamaica Inn'
mediaHundreds complain over dialogue levels in period drama
News
peopleJay Z and Beyoncé to buy £5.5m London townhouse
Voices
voicesMoyes' tragedy is one the Deputy PM understands all too well, says Matthew Norman
Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
musicWhy do musicians play into old age?
Arts & Entertainment
With Jo Joyner in 'Trying Again'
tvHe talks to Alice Jones on swapping politics for pillow talk
News
Jilly's jewels: gardener Alan Titchmarsh
peopleCountry Life magazine's list of 'gallant' public figures throws light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Sport
John Terry goes down injured in the 70th minute
sportAtletico Madrid 0 Chelsea 0: Blues can finish the job at Stamford Bridge, but injuries to Terry and Cech are a concern for Mourinho
Student
student
News
<b>Rebecca Adlington</b>
<br />This, the first British swimmer to win two
Olympic gold medals in 100 years, is the eversmiling
face of the athletes who will, we're
confident, make us all proud at London 2012
peopleRebecca Adlington on 'nose surgery'
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence - Oxford An opportunity f...

Projects Financial Analyst - Global Technology firm

£55000 - £62000 per annum + outstanding benefits and bonus: Pro-Recruitment Gr...

Reception Teacher

£120 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Reception teacher required for an Outs...

Commercial B2B Pricing Specialist - Global Bids and Tenders

£35000 - £45000 per annum + excellent company benefits : Pro-Recruitment Group...

Day In a Page

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

Sam Wallace

Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

Through the screen

British Pathé opens its archives
The man behind the papier mâché mask

Frank Sidebottom

The man behind the papier mâché mask
Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

Boston runs again

Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

40 years of fostering and holding the babies

In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents