Obama campaign team defends Susan Rice on Benghazi cover-up

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.

Burton joined the Obama forces’ defensive posture Nov. 18 after Dowd’s influential column dismissed Rice as a potential Secretary of State.

“Our [Democratic] Rice is better than your Rice… and it’s true. Condi Rice sold her soul. Susan Rice merely rented hers on the talk shows one Sunday in September,” wrote Dowd in her column, titled “Is Rice Cooked?”

“She would have been wise… [to] vet her talking points, given that members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities and sources in news accounts considered it a terrorist attack days before Rice went on the shows,” Dowd argued.

Dowd also claimed at least one White House official shared her criticism.

Rice “‘saw this as a great opportunity to go out and close the stature gap. … She was focused on the performance, not the content. … What if what you’re saying isn’t true, even if you’re saying it well?” the official said, according to Dowd in her column.

Burton responded by suggesting that Dowd’s column violated the newspaper’s standards against reliance on unnamed officials.

“Hard to see how the axe grinding quotes about Susan Rice in this Dowd piece… square w/ NYT policy,” he tweeted.

Besides, “Obama admin didn’t overreact [to intelligence data] & start a war,” Burton added.

Increasing numbers of GOP legislators say they are persuaded that White House officials knew early on that al-Qaida’s allies were behind the attack, but instead choose to rewrite intelligence reports and blame the anti-Islam YouTube video.

Several GOP legislators reported Friday that David Petraeus, the recently departed CIA director, told a Nov. 16 hearing that administration officials rewrote his Sept. 12 report to hide al-Qaida’s role in the Benghazi attack.

Continuing congressional investigations likely will examine if claims by Obama and Rice about an angry mob were intended to hide the failure of the president’s Arab-outreach policy during the weeks prior to the November election.

In response, White House officials and allied Democratic legislators now insist that there was no cover-up. Instead, they blame shifting intelligence data and complex classification rules for an apparent overemphasis on the video’s role in the jihadi attack.

However, numerous pre-election White House statements highlighted the video’s supposed role in the attack. On Sept. 25, for example, Obama used his speech before the U.N General Assembly to decry the streaming-video attack on Muhammad and to insist that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

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