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New York Times Columnists Battle Over Susan Rice and Benghazi

Wednesday's New York Times front page featured Susan Rice's failed attempt to assuage concerns of three Senate Republicans on her false statements about the Benghazi massacre in "Rice Concedes Error on Libya: G.O.P. Digs In". Inside was an unflattering photo of a peeved-looking Sen. John McCain.

Posing Republican senator and Rice critic John McCain as the bad guy, an on-line text box accompanying the article highlighted a reader comment from "Them or Us": "If you think these three Senators walked in with open minds and no agenda, I'd like to sell you a bridge that crosses the East River into Brooklyn. McCain's little kangaroo court is about as transparent as his anger."

Reporters Mark Landler and Jeremy Peters minimized the import of the policy scandal by focusing on the personal, portraying Rice, who may be nominated by President Obama to the post of UN ambassador, as offering an olive branch that "hostile Senate Republicans" rejected.

Susan E. Rice may have hoped that paying a conciliatory call on three hostile Senate Republicans on Tuesday would smooth over a festering dispute about the deadly attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and clear a roadblock to her nomination as secretary of state.

But the senators seemed anything but mollified, signaling instead that they would still oppose Ms. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, if she is nominated by President Obama, even after she conceded errors in the account of the assault she gave on Sunday morning television programs shortly after it occurred in September.

....

In a statement after the meeting, Ms. Rice said she incorrectly described the attack in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as a spontaneous protest gone awry rather than a premeditated terrorist attack. But she said she based her remarks on the intelligence then available -- intelligence that changed over time.

“Neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in the process,” said Ms. Rice, who was accompanied at the 10 a.m. meeting by the acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael J. Morell.

But Mr. Morell reinforced the perception of an administration that cannot get its story straight by asserting during the meeting that the F.B.I. had modified Ms. Rice’s talking points by removing a specific reference to Al Qaeda. At 4 p.m., the senators said in a statement, the C.I.A. called to notify them that Mr. Morell had erred, and that the agency had made the change, not the bureau.

Interestingly, Times columnists Tom Friedman vs. Maureen Dowd weighed in on opposite sides of the Susan Rice affair in their Wednesday columns, with Friedman as usual dismissing the controversy as a "contrived flap" and Dowd taking Republican concerns pretty seriously -- at least those of moderate Republican Susan Collins.

Friedman:

President Obama is assembling his new national security team, with Senator John Kerry possibly heading for the Pentagon and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice the perceived front-runner to become secretary of state. Kerry is an excellent choice for defense. I don’t know Rice at all, so I have no opinion on her fitness for the job, but I think the contrived flap over her Libya comments certainly shouldn’t disqualify her....

Dowd by contrast posed a series of questions courtesy of moderate Republican Susan Collins, who presumably can't be accused of racism or sexism in her criticism of Rice:

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the soft-spoken ranking member on the homeland security committee, hasn’t been part of this shrill debate. Though they had met only once or twice, Collins agreed to introduce Rice to the Foreign Relations Committee in 2009 when Rice was nominated as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Rice’s grandparents immigrated from Jamaica to Portland, Maine.

“I don’t bear any animus to her at all,” the senator said. “In fact, to the contrary.”

But she said she is “troubled” by Rice’s role. “If I wanted to be secretary of state,” Collins observed, “I would not go on television and perform what was essentially a political role.”

Collins drew up a list of questions to ask Rice at their one-on-one hourlong meeting slated for Wednesday. She wants Rice to explain how she could promote a story “with such certitude” about a spontaneous demonstration over the anti-Muslim video that was so at odds with the classified information to which the ambassador had access. (It was also at odds with common sense, given that there were Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebel army members that overthrew Muammar el-Qaddafi with help from the U.S. -- an intervention advocated by Rice -- and Islamic extremist training camps in the Benghazi area.)

Dowd summarized the Republican's questions for Rice, including:

When Rice heard the president of the Libyan National Congress tell Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation,” right before her appearance, that 50 people had been arrested who were either foreign or affiliated with or sympathized with Al Qaeda, why did she push back with the video story? “Why wouldn’t she think what the Libyan president said mattered?” Collins wondered.

Why did Rice say on ABC News’s “This Week,” that “two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security”? Rice was referring to the two ex-Navy SEAL team members who were C.I.A. security officers working on a base about a mile away. “They weren’t there to protect Ambassador Stevens,” Collins said. “That wasn’t their job.”

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Collins said that before she would support Rice for secretary of state, she needs to ascertain what was really going on. “Did they think admitting that it was an Al Qaeda attack would destroy the narrative of Libya being a big success story?” Collins asked. As one of the administration champions of intervening in Libya, Rice was surely rooting for that success story herself.