Graham, McCain, and Ayotte demand to know who altered Rice’s talking points

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Following their meeting with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on Tuesday morning, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Kelly Ayotte strongly disagreed with the White House’s statement Tuesday that “there are no unanswered questions” regarding Rice’s initial statements on the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack.

The three senators have been highly critical of Rice, who said on several Sunday talk shows immediately following the attack that intelligence indicated that the incident was the result of a spontaneous protest about an anti-Muslim film.

In the Tuesday meeting, Rice acknowledged that that initial intelligence had been “incorrect.”

The three left the meeting saying they were “more disturbed” than when they went in, adding that many questions remained.

One major question appears to be who exactly removed all references to al-Qaida from the declassified talking points Rice used to prepare for the Sunday talk shows.

“Around 10:00 this morning in a meeting requested by Ambassador Rice, accompanied by acting CIA Director Mike Morell, we asked Mr. Morell who changed the unclassified talking points to remove references to al-Qaida. In response, Mr. Morell said the FBI removed the references and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation,” the three senators said in a joint statement issued Tuesday evening. “We were surprised by this revelation and the reasoning behind it.”

“However, at approximately 4:00 this afternoon, CIA officials contacted us and indicated that acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting,” the senators went on. “The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaida references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why.”

“We are disturbed by the administration’s continued inability to answer even the most basic questions about the Benghazi attack and the administration’s response.

The senators said that questions also remained about the timeline of the attack, “the president’s statements regarding the attack,” and about how long it took for the U.S. military to respond.

The statement came shortly after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issued a statement slamming the three Republicans for politicizing the issue, calling the criticism a “personal attacks” against Rice, as well as “outrageous and utterly unmoored from facts and reality.”

“I am shocked that senators would continue these attacks even when the evidence – including disclosures from the intelligence community about the information she presented – have made it clear that the allegations against Ambassador Rice are baseless, and that she has done absolutely nothing wrong,” Reid said, saying that Rice has answered all questions put before her, and that further investigation into the issue should be left with the intelligence and homeland security committees.

“There should be no place for such blatant partisanship in oversight of our nation’s intelligence community,” Reid said. “The election is over. It is time to drop these partisan political games, and focus our attention on the real challenges facing us as a nation.”

Rice is a likely nominee for secretary of state, and the Republican criticism of her on this issue could dog her in Senate confirmation hearings. Ayotte said earlier that she would put a hold on Rice’s nomination until further questions were answered.

The U.N. ambassador will meet with Sen. Susan Collins, ranking member of the homeland security committee, on Wednesday.

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