U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice attends the 2012 Global Leadership Awards Dinner in New York City on Oct. 16. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)
After she was skewered for weeks by Senate Republicans, the tide may be turning for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s chances of becoming Washington’s top diplomat.
One of Rice’s fiercest critics, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain, R-Ariz., appears to be softening his stance that he and several GOP colleagues would block her nomination if sent to the upper chamber.
McCain and other Republican lawmakers have been voicing severe opposition to speculation that President Barack Obama intends to nominate Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They are angry about comments Rice made on all five major Sunday political shows just days after a Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Libya that killed the American ambassador and three others.
On those shows, five days after the attack, Rice stated the Obama administration believed the attack sprang up — unplanned — from an angry protest over an anti-Muslim video. She also said the administration did not believe it was a planned terrorist attack.
But Obama and other administration officials soon altered course, and Obama himself even called it an act of terrorism as early as Sept. 12 in the White House’s Rose Garden.
Reports surfaced on Nov. 20 stating that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) removed from the talking points given to Rice by the intelligence community parts that pointed to al-Qaida involvement.
“I am somewhat surprised and frustrated to read reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was responsible for removing references to [al-Qaida] from the unclassified talking points about the Benghazi attack that ... Rice and other officials used in the early days after Sept. 11, 2012,” McCain said in a statement.
“I participated in hours of hearings in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week regarding the events in Benghazi, where senior intelligence officials were asked this very question, and all of them — including the director of national intelligence himself — told us that they did not know who made the changes,” McCain said.
Asked by Defense News whether the DNI’s staff removal of the al-Qaida references has caused his boss to take back his stance that Rice is “unfit” to be secretary of state, a top McCain aide referred a reporter to McCain’s comments on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”
On the Nov. 18 version of that Sunday morning talk show, McCain questioned whether Rice is qualified, but floated an olive branch.
The SASC’s top Republican appeared to suggest Rice’s confirmation, if she’s eventually nominated, would move forward if she “publicly [comes] back on this show and [says], ‘I was wrong, I gave the wrong information on your show several weeks ago’.”
During a joint Nov. 14 press briefing with fellow GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, McCain said, “we would do everything in our power to block the nomination.”.
A few hours later the same day, during his first White House press conference since winning a second term, Obama displayed rare public anger in defending Rice.
Obama called it “outrageous” that McCain and his colleagues were “going after” Rice over the attack on the Benghazi, Libya, facility. He said Rice’s comments in the days after the attack were based on intelligence she received, adding that as U.N. ambassador she was not involved in the situation.
“Come after me instead,” Obama said.
“When they go after the U.N. ambassador — because they think she’s an easy target — then they’ve got a problem with me,” the president said, adding that if he decides she is the best person for the job he still will send her name to the Senate.
He has yet to do so, but Obama’s decision on his pick for Foggy Bottom’s corner office will affect the Pentagon. That’s because Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a top Obama first-term and campaign-trail ally, long has wanted to become secretary of state.
Sources say Obama and his aides know they owe Kerry. They have floated the notion that if Rice ends up at the State Department, Obama might nominate Kerry to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary.
Some Washington insiders, however, question that scenario.
They say getting Rice confirmed would trigger a major political fight early next year just as Obama and congressional Republicans would be seeking common ground on a range of issues as they work to strike accord on a major deficit-reduction bill needed to avoid deep defense cuts — and another recession.
Sources also contend Kerry would greatly prefer the secretary of state job, and question whether he is the right fit for the Pentagon. Some insiders question whether Kerry would clash with the culture of the Defense Department, leading to an unproductive tenure.