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Rice meeting with senators fails to dampen criticism

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) Susan Rice speaks with the media after Security Council consultations at U.N. headquarters in N
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) Susan Rice speaks with the media after Security Council consultations at U.N. headquarters in N

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on Tuesday failed to win over her harshest Republican critics in the U.S. Senate who are threatening to block her nomination if President Barack Obama chooses her for Secretary of State or another top post in his second-term Cabinet.

Rice met for about an hour behind closed doors at the U.S. Capitol with Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte. They have openly criticized her for initial comments after the September 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that suggested it was a spontaneous event arising from protests of an anti-Islam film rather than a premeditated attack.

The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in the attack on the Benghazi mission and a nearby CIA annex. Intelligence officials later said the attack was possibly tied to al Qaeda affiliates.

"We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got, and some that we didn't get, concerning evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate," McCain told reporters after the meeting.

"It is clear that the information that she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video," he said.

"It was not, and there was compelling evidence at the time that that was certainly not the case, including statements by Libyans as well as other Americans who are fully aware that people don't bring mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to spontaneous demonstrations," McCain said.

Republicans have argued that the Obama administration tried to play down the terrorist angle in its initial comments to avoid undermining the president's claims of success in fighting al Qaeda in the run-up to the November 6 election.

Rice was accompanied by acting CIA Director Michael Morell and was not seen by reporters, but later issued a statement saying: "We explained that the talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi."

"While, we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved," she said. "We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the Administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process."

Obama has defended Rice and said if senators have a problem with the administration's handling of Benghazi they should "go after me" rather than try to "besmirch her reputation."

Graham also criticized U.S. intelligence agencies that wrote the talking points on which Rice based her public comments.

"I'm very disappointed in our intelligence community. I think they failed in many ways. But with a little bit of inquiry and curiosity, I think it would be pretty clear that to explain this episode as related to a video that created a mob that turned into a riot was far afield," he said. "And at the end of the day, we're going to get to the bottom of this."

Rice's controversial Benghazi statements were based on a set of unclassified talking points prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies for members of Congress.

The initial draft written by the CIA referred to "attacks" carried out by "extremists with ties to al Qaeda." However by the time Rice received them, "attacks" had changed to "demonstrations" and "with ties to al Qaeda" had been deleted, multiple U.S. sources have said.

The White House has denied making those edits and members of Congress are trying to determine where the changes were made.

The senators who met with Rice remained unconvinced by her responses and said her visit left them with greater concerns than before the meeting.

"I wouldn't vote for anybody being nominated out of the Benghazi debacle until I had answers about what happened that I don't have today," Graham said.

Asked whether he would block such a nomination, Graham said: "Oh, absolutely. I would place a hold on anybody that wanted to be promoted for any job that had a role in the Benghazi situation."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the questions about Rice's appearance on the talk shows and the talking points had been answered. "The focus on - some might say obsession on - comments made on Sunday shows seems to me and to many to be misplaced," he said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Jeff Mason and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Jackie Frank)

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