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Questions over U.S. Consulate attack in Libya

On Sept. 11, 2012 in Libya, a heavily armed group attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Two other Americans and seven Libyans were also injured.

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By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessy

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Praising “their integrity and their heart,” President Obama on Wednesday announced a shuffling of his top national security aides, including the departure of National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, the elevation of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to Donilon’s position and the nomination of longtime advisor Samantha Power to lead the U.S. mission to the UN.

riceDuring their years of service in his White House, Obama said, the three players have made “America’s values live in corners of the world that are crying out for our support and our leadership.”

Appearing in the Rose Garden with all three, Obama lauded them one by one for their ability to push not just for U.S. interests but also for such American values as democracy and human rights.

In doing so, Obama acknowledged the basic tension in his foreign policy team right now. The civil war in Syria grows more bloody by the day and yet Obama has not arrived at a strategically advantageous way to intervene that, for him, justifies the American risk involved.

Rice and Power are among those in the administration who lean toward intervention and have advocated for it in internal discussions. As Obama was preparing to make his official announcement, though, aides hastened to say that their appointments do not mean changes are in the works on the president’s policy on Syria.

Underscoring the point as he introduced Rice, who will become his top advisor on foreign policy, Obama called her a “fierce champion for justice and human dignity” who is “also mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately.”

Rice, 48, is set to take over this summer. Her position does not require confirmation by the Senate. Rice has come under intense fire from Republicans for her role in the controversy over the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

GOP critics contend that she intentionally downplayed the role of terrorist groups during an initial round of interviews after the attack last year.

Key Republicans threatened to block her expected nomination to serve as secretary of State, but she withdrew her name from consideration. She has been an advisor to Obama since his 2008 run for the White House.

Power, 42, is also a longtime advisor. After serving in Obama’s Senate office she went on to be a special assistant to the president and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights.

Her 2002 book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” won the Pulitzer Prize. Obama mentioned the book the first time he met Power, she said Wednesday.

“From the day I met you and you told me that you had spent a chunk of your vacation reading a long, dark book on genocide, I knew you were a different kind of leader,” she told him in front of the crowd in the Rose Garden. “And I knew I wanted to work for you.”

Power’s nomination must be confirmed by Senate.

Donilon, 58, departs after four years of service on Obama’s national security staff. He took the place of Gen. James Jones as national security advisor in 2010 and went on to help craft the administration’s policy for the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

A former chief of staff to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Donilon has been an internal advocate for turning the focus of U.S. foreign policy to Asia.

In one of his last acts in the job, Donilon will join Obama this week in a high-stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

WASHINGTON – Three Republican senators said they were unsatisfied by the answers provided by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice after a fence-mending meeting on her disputed role after the terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi.

After a one-hour meeting with Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire each said they had more questions about how Rice came to characterize the Sept. 11 attack as a reaction to a U.S.-made film denigrating Islam. U.S. officials now say militants planned and carried out the attack.

“I’m more disturbed now than I was before,” Graham said.

Rice is thought to be President Obama’s leading choice to become the next secretary of state, and the meeting appeared to be an attempt to clear the way for a smooth Senate confirmation hearing. But the senators’ comments signaled that the choice could spark a contentious confirmation, even though the White House is likely to eventually prevail.

– Paul Richter, Los Angles Times

To read the full L.A. Times article, click here.

Most of the Republican members of a Senate committee investigating the terrorist attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, skipped a classified briefing by administration officials on the incident Wednesday, CNN has learned.

The missing lawmakers included Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who at the time of the top-secret briefing held a press conference in the Capitol to call for the creation of a Watergate-type special congressional committee to investigate how and why the attack took place.

McCain, who has accused President Barack Obama of not telling the truth about the Benghazi attack, said that even though there are several committees involved in the probe, only a select committee could streamline the information flow and resolve the “many unanswered questions” about the tragedy.

When CNN approached McCain in a Capitol hallway Thursday morning, the senator refused to comment about why he missed the briefing, which was conducted by top diplomatic, military and counter-terrorism officials. Instead, McCain got testy when pressed to say why he wasn’t there.

“I have no comment about my schedule and I’m not going to comment on how I spend my time to the media,” McCain said.

Asked why he wouldn’t comment, McCain grew agitated: “Because I have the right as a senator to have no comment and who the hell are you to tell me I can or not?”

When CNN noted that McCain had missed a key meeting on a subject the senator has been intensely upset about, McCain said, “I’m upset that you keep badgering me.”

While McCain refused to shed light on why he didn’t show, his spokesman Brian Rogers emailed CNN a short time later with an explanation. He blamed it on a “scheduling error” but wouldn’t provide any more detail.

According to a Democratic aide on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, only three of the eight GOP members of the committee attended the two-hour briefing that ran from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET. By contrast, seven of the nine Democratic members were there.

McCain’s press conference took place at noon.

McCain did spend several hours in a Senate Intelligence Committee briefing on Benghazi Thursday, and plans to attend the panel’s closed-door session on Friday with former CIA Director David Petraeus.

– CNN

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on congressional intelligence committees got a detailed account Thursday of what happened during the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

In closed-door sessions, lawmakers got their most comprehensive account to date of what happened on the ground in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, a senior intelligence official told CNN. They also heard an explanation as to what U.S. officials were doing behind the scenes to respond, the official said, adding that the presentation would clarify some mischaracterizations about the nature of the attack.

A video that the legislators saw shows the attack and Stevens being dragged out of a building, a source familiar with the House Intelligence Committee told CNN. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said the footage was “a combination of video from a surveillance camera and a drone.”

“It gave us a good picture, from the surveillance standpoint, what was happening,” Coats said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., described the session as “the most constructive briefing” the committee has had on the matter to date.

Meanwhile, Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs committee, which convened a panel of experts not directly connected with the Benghazi attack, offered sharp criticism of the administration’s handling of the matter, with one congressman calling the U.S. president a liar.

“What is clear is that this administration, including the president himself, has intentionally misinformed — read that, lied — to the American people in the aftermath of this tragedy,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. “The arrogance and dishonesty reflected in all of this is a little bit breathtaking.”

In recent days, a chorus of leading Republicans — including Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking member on the Armed Services committee; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who also sits on that committee; and Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee — have stridently criticized the government’s response to the Benghazi attack. Graham and McCain have vowed to block U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice if she is nominated for secretary of state because they disliked her characterization of the incidents.

After Thursday’s House Intelligence committee hearing, Schiff defended Rice.

“We were given a very early assessment of events in Benghazi, and we were given an unclassified version that we could share with the public. That unclassified version turned out to be inaccurate, as we found out later,” Schiff said.

The California Democrat said Rice got the same assessment that the violence in Benghazi began with “a spontaneous protest that evolved into something militant.”

“So I would say for those that are claiming that the U.N. ambassador had some different information, they are either unfamiliar with the facts or willfully ignoring them,” Schiff said.

But the source familiar with the same briefing that Schiff attended said one Republican House member “got into it” with acting CIA Director Michael Morrel and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about Rice’s comments, challenging why they weren’t as strong as they should have been on if there was an extremist element involved.

The political drama unfolds against a backdrop of a sex scandal involving the head of the CIA and top commander in Afghanistan.

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus is scheduled to testify Friday before the House Intelligence Committee, and a Senate aide confirmed that he also will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee that day.

Petraeus is testifying, days after resigning as CIA chief, in part to clear up “a lot of misrepresentations of what he told Congress initially,” a source who has spoken to him said.

The then-CIA director knew “almost immediately” after the Benghazi attack that members of Ansar al-Sharia, a loosely connected radical Islamist group, were responsible, said the source, who is directly familiar with Petraeus’ analysis of the situation.

Video from the scene and multiple sources indicated the group was behind the attack, said the source. At the same time, a separate stream of intelligence, including about 20 distinct reports, also emerged indicating a brewing furor over an anti-Islamic video produced in the United States may have spurred the attack.

The CIA eventually disproved the reports that film-related protests had anything to do with the attack. But this didn’t happen until after Petraeus’ initial briefings to lawmakers, in which he discussed all the possibilities, the source said.

– CNN

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called out Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain for their “outrageous” comments saying they would block U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice if she is nominated for secretary of state.

“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after someone, they should go after me,” Obama said at a White House news conference on Wednesday. “When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”

Earlier Wednesday, Graham and McCain said they would use parliamentary means to hold up her nomination, should it be made, over her characterization of the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

After that attack, Rice was dispatched to several talk shows, where she said the incident involved a “spontaneous” demonstration. Senior administration officials later said Rice was speaking from talking points prepared for official use and the word “spontaneous” was a poor choice to describe what is now understood to have been a terrorist attack.

The assault killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans and was a flashpoint in the just completed presidential election campaign.

Rice is among the potential nominees to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she does not wish to serve in Obama’s second term but is willing to stay on until her replacement is confirmed by the Senate.

McCain took to the floor of the Senate about an hour after Obama’s remarks and said that the president and other statements by officials on the attacks were “not true.”

“The president of the United States did not tell the American people the truth about the attacks that took four brave Americans’ lives that went on for eight, seven hours, for which we were totally unprepared. Mr. President, four brave Americans died. It has now been eight weeks. The American people have received nothing but contradictory statements from all levels of our government,” he said, pounding his hand on the lectern.

McCain charged that “this president and this administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover-up, neither of which are acceptable to the American people.”

Graham responded to Obama with a sharp statement of his own: “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.”

Asked off the Senate floor how personal the exchanges between the senators and Obama got, Graham said, “Well, you know, all I can say is, I do hold him responsible. If he’s worried about me not holding him responsible, he’s wrong.

“I want to work with him on the fiscal cliff. I want to work with him on immigration. I’d like to work with him on other things that we need to do as a nation, but I’m not going to give him a pass here,” Graham said.

Asked if he thought Rice should step down, Graham said, “I’m not asking her to step down. I’m just not going to promote anybody that I think is up to their eyeballs in the debacle.”

In his remarks on Wednesday, Obama defended Rice’s earlier televised comments, saying, “She made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her.”

He said he is open to the appointment for Rice, although he said has not yet decided who he will advance when Clinton steps down. Speculation has also centered on Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for secretary of state or defense.

Rice previously served as assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton and was a foreign policy adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Graham and other Republicans have not only questioned her statements, but also why the administration put her forward to speak about the attack, rather than another top official who might have been more directly connected to the Libya situation.

“The reason I don’t trust her is that I think she knew better, and if she didn’t’ know better, she shouldn’t be the voice of America,” Graham said.

Both Graham and McCain have called for a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks, including the U.S. response and preparations, such as whether the consulate had adequate security.

“I just want to find out what happened in Benghazi in a coordinated fashion that the work product would be accepted by the American people,” Graham said. “I’ve got some firm opinions. I think it was poorly handled. But we’ll never know. I think it’s a symptom of a greater problem.”

He reiterated his call for one committee to investigate.

Instead of going off in three different directions, where you don’t coordinate your questions, and having people testify multiple times, let’s put one committee together. Democrats will lead it. They should, they’re in charge. And find out what happened.

“I’m dying to know — Mr. President, I’ve got a simple question: Did you know the consulate was attacked in June? And if you do know it was attacked in June, why didn’t you do something about protecting it?”

But Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who has joined forces with Graham and McCain in calling for a select committee investigation of Benghazi, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that she would put a hold on any Rice nomination until she answered questions.

“Then I will reassess what her answers are on those questions,” Ayotte said.

“I have serious concerns about where we are right now and trusting what she has to say, but I’m willing to listen to what she has to say,” Ayotte added.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told CNN that someone should lose their jobs over Benghazi but Rice should not be the issue. He said security questions are paramount.

“I think really the more important question isn’t really about whether it was caused by terrorism or whether it was caused by a movie,” he said. “Obviously it was terrorism, but I think the more important question is why were there no Marines guarding our ambassador. Who made the decision — not an immediate… decision, but a month-long desk decision to send an ambassador into a war-torn country without any uniformed Marines.”

Paul said he did not want to “pre-judge” any nomination for secretary of state.

– CNN

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