Passing the buck on Benghazi

The Obama administration’s clumsy attempt to mollify the Republican opposition in the Senate to a possible nomination of Susan Rice as the next secretary of State has not only opened another can of worms on “Benghazigate” but may have fatally damaged her prospects.

Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said yesterday there are “no unanswered questions” about Rice’s appearances on the Sept. 16 Sunday shows after the Libya attack and the talking points that she used, “provided by the intelligence community.” “Those questions have been answered,” he said after Rice and CIA acting director Michael Morell met privately with three key senators.

How is it possible to say this after the senators came out of the meeting saying they were more disturbed than before?

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The exact timeline on who knew what and when has needed to be clarified urgently since the former CIA chief, Gen. David Petraeus, testified to Congress on Nov. 17 that he had always believed that the armed assault on the U.S. consulate — which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador — was a terrorist attack. Rice has been accused of playing down the Sept. 11 attack for political reasons by blaming it on “spontaneous” protests linked to an anti-Islamic video.

This buck has been passed around so much that it’s making me dizzy. The administration seems to be pointing the finger at the intelligence community: In a statement issued after yesterday’s meeting, Rice noted that “the intelligence assessment has evolved,” and that the initial talking points of the intelligence community were “incorrect.” The bottom line remains: Who cut the references to terrorism and al Qaeda in the talking points used by Rice? In the latest version of the shifting narrative available today, we still don’t know for sure.

The senators said in a statement last night: “At approximately 4 this afternoon, CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al Qaeda references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why.” So do we now know for certain that it was the CIA and if so, did they act under political pressure?

Just as important are the questions surrounding Rice’s fitness for the job of secretary of State, as formulated by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). While the U.N. ambassador’s loyalty to the president is well-known, that fierce loyalty may be hindering her in taking independent judgments given her access to classified information in her current post.

Rice will get the opportunity to address Collins’s concerns directly today. Nine weeks after the Sept. 11 events, the lack of clear answers is astonishing.