When Susan Rice and Michael Morell traveled to Capitol Hill last week, they hoped for a meeting of the minds. The American ambassador to the United Nations would acknowledge the flawed talking points she delivered on the Sunday talk shows after the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The acting CIA director would vouch for her credibility, noting the agency crafted the talking points and massaged a specific reference to terrorists into the more general “extremists” for intelligence reasons.
That should have been the end of the tempest surrounding Rice, the puzzling effort led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to fry the ambassador for her words and suggest that somehow she was part of the Obama White House looking to duck responsibility. But that wasn’t the end. McCain and Graham emerged from the meeting to say they now had less confidence in Rice.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Susan Collins echoed the doubts. All four of these Republicans have signaled that they would oppose Rice if the president nominated her to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Collins even appeared offended that Rice agreed to be part of the talk shows.
Put aside that officials such as Rice regularly are guests. The ambassador hardly did anything worthy of panting about a scandal. If the Obama team was trying to play down a terrorist angle, Mitt Romney and other Republicans weren’t shy about voicing their criticism, the public debate allowing the rest of us to draw our conclusions.
Evident was the fluid accounting of what happened, the attack resulting in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. If anything, the fuss about Rice and her words has distracted from more important questions about the level of security at the consulate, the actual threat from terrorists or militias, and the appropriate balance to strike between conducting diplomacy and ensuring secure facilities.
These and other questions are the focus of a State Department investigation ordered by Secretary Clinton and headed by Adm. Michael Mullen and Thomas Pickering, a top diplomat of the Clinton and Bush the elder eras. Mullen and Pickering promise independence and credibility, both welcome departures from the partisanship that has clouded the episode.
Worth keeping in mind is that the consulate had taken steps to improve security before the attack in September. Officials moved the operation to a large compound, allowing for a setback against car bombs. The outer wall was raised to nine feet, topped by three feet of barbed wire. Lighting was improved, concrete barriers added, along with steel drop bars to the gate at the entrance.
Was that sufficient? Not against the powerful military-like assault that followed. At the same time, Ambassador Stevens didn’t seem the type who would have been comfortable with a consulate as fortress. The State Department faced a hard choice, one the U.N. ambassador had no part in making, at what point favor engagement over protection. There are risks in such decisions. Perhaps better intelligence would have brought greater security. Plain is that hounding Susan Rice misses wildly the heart of the matter.