Susan Rice and Her Attackers

She survived the Benghazi investigation. Now she and her critics can discuss the danger of drawing conclusions from thin evidence.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice speaks during a Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East at the United Nations headquarters in New York May 11, 2009.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice speaks during a Security Council meeting in 2009.

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

When President Barack Obama named Susan Rice to be his national security adviser, it was not a surprise. White House aides had been foreshadowing it since December when Republican senators made it clear Rice would face an impossible confirmation fight if nominated for secretary of state because of her remarks on the Sunday talk shows about the cause of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Naming Rice was the president’s second affront to Republicans in two days. The day before, he named three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and challenged Senate GOP leaders to block them. Rice cannot be blocked by the Senate—her post doesn’t require confirmation—but it should stir even greater heat. This is the woman Sen. Lindsey Graham said was “an essential player in the Benghazi debacle.” Given Republican anger about unresolved questions surrounding the attack, this promotion should be the equivalent of George Bush naming Michael Brown the head of the Department of Homeland Security. 

It shouldn’t be. Rice wasn’t the key player her critics once thought she was. None of her accusers will admit that, but the congressional investigations into Benghazi have already helped to put her role in perspective—both by forcing the White House to release talking points about those Sunday show appearances and by deciding Rice was such an insignificant player she wasn’t worth calling to testify or interview. The focus of current questions about Benghazi is elsewhere. Rice’s accusers have changed their initial view in light of new information. It is a strange kind of tribute to her since that’s the same defense the White House eventually offered: Rice had given her best understanding of intelligence at the time, but future information changed the picture. 

In the original case against Rice, Sens. John McCain and Graham argued that she was central to the Obama conspiracy to hide the facts about Benghazi. On the Sunday public affairs shows, Rice had promoted the idea that rioters were spontaneously angered by an anti-Muslim video and that they were not terrorists with links to al-Qaida who may have planned the attack. This message helped to protect the president’s re-election chances, which were built in part on his administration’s competence fighting terrorism. 

What we learned from the White House emails related to the Benghazi talking points is that she had nothing to do with the intelligence assessments or crafting the information that she repeated on those programs. The White House wasn’t even that involved. It was the CIA and the State Department who shaved the talking points down to the formless mush that represented the first official statements. The idea of a spontaneous demonstration sparking the attack came from the CIA, not Rice. Yes, but what about the video? Rice mentioned that the video sparked the protest. There was nothing about that in the CIA talking points. True, but the CIA-informed talking points say that the Benghazi attack was inspired by the Cairo protests. What started the Cairo protests? The video.

The Sunday after the attack is where Rice leaves the story. The video would ultimately be discredited. One of the open questions is why Obama and Hillary Clinton continued to talk about the video after it had been undermined. But that’s still a question that has nothing to do with Rice. There are lots of other questions about the attack and information that was put out afterward that still require better answers, but Rice was never the person expected to provide them.  

Some of the attacks on Rice were also an effort to penalize the administration for its shiftiness. That was real enough, a combination of State Department turf-protecting and dissembling about the creation of the talking points. But Susan Rice wasn’t involved in any of that. Still, for some she is a symbol worth attacking for the entire screw-up. This is understandable but irrational. Why penalize Rice when Hillary Clinton is a much more logical target? It was State Department employees who failed. Clinton talked about the video long after intelligence agencies debunked the idea that it sparked the attack. She was the one who testified that there had been no substantive changes to the talking points. 

If Rice is a symbol of anything, it is the way the administrations of both parties offer officials to speak about events in which they were not directly involved. But if putting someone forward who wasn’t involved isn’t a good idea, then attacking her for something she wasn’t involved in only echoes this mistake. In the end, both Susan Rice and her critics offered incorrect early assessments about complex evolving events. Since she will now be in a position to interact with many of her critics in a position of tremendous power, they will have opportunities to discuss this irony soon enough.