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NEW YORK, NY - JULY 11: U.S.  Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice addresses the media following a UN Security Council meeting on July 11, 2012 in New York City. At the meeting the UN and Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, said via a video conference from Geneva  that the UN Security Council is discussing what action it could take next to address the crisis.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) NEW YORK, NY - JULY 11: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice addresses the media following a UN Security Council meeting on July 11, 2012 in New York City. At the meeting the UN and Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, said via a video conference from Geneva that the UN Security Council is discussing what action it could take next to address the crisis. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  

Obama campaign team defends Susan Rice on Benghazi cover-up

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama’s campaign team has joined the all-hands effort to protect U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice from mounting evidence that she suppressed intelligence data to aid the president’s re-election campaign.

The rush to defend Rice comes as Obama decides whether to nominate her to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

That possible promotion may face a stiff headwind in the form of growing criticism of Rice’s decision to help cover up the role of al-Qaida-linked jihadis in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.

If Rice is not nominated, and especially if her nomination fails, the administration will come under more pressure to explain its actions before and after the attack.

The post-attack cover-up has involved an attempt to blame the attack on Arabs’ reaction to a little-known anti-Islam video made in California. It sidelined the role played by al-Qaida and its allies in the attack, and growing problems in Obama’s Arab outreach policy. The cover-up also successfully minimized the controversy’s role in the 2012 election.

Bill Burton, co-founder of the Obama-allied PrioritiesUSA super PAC, tweeted a defense of Rice on Nov. 18 in response to a critical opinion column by liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whose published positions can sway progressives’ opinions.

“Unfortunate & weak piece. Attacking Rice for giving the best available info is pretty disappointing… Rice was given fluid CIA analysis,” Burton tweeted about Dowd’s article, which slammed Rice as similar to Condoleeza Rice, the national security adviser and later Secretary of State during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Burton’s sudden intervention echoed a tweet from Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, who applauded the president’s Nov. 14 effort to suggest that sexism motivates the growing Republican criticism of Rice.

That criticism comes chiefly from New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

If they “want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama insisted at a Nov. 14 White House press conference. “For them to go after the U.N. Ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi, and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous,” Obama said in defense of Rice’s job performance.

Five days after the attack, Rice went on five Sunday talk-shows to insist that the attack by heavily-armed jihadis was really caused by a spontaneous mob angry at a California video critical of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

Obama ended his press conference after taking questions from 10 reporters, and quickly left the room.

Shortly after that rare press event, Axelrod backed up the president’s suggestion that criticism of Rice is somehow improper.

“POTUS strongly & appropriately smacks down McCain and [Sen. Lindsay] Graham for their shameless, dishonest attacks on Susan Rice, a great public servant,” Axelrod tweeted Nov. 14.

Axelrod did not acknowledge the criticism of Rice that came from a woman, Sen. Ayotte.

Several Democratic legislators have also adopted the president’s approach, and suggested that criticism of Rice is sexist or racist.