Leading Republican senators charged Thursday that National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s public account of the Benghazi terror attack has now “absolutely collapsed,” citing inaccuracies in her statements not only on the origin of the attack but the level of security at the U.S. compound.
The lawmakers said she is clearly “frustrated” that her story is falling apart, a day after Rice appeared to scoff at a question on whether a congressional select committee probe would reveal new evidence. “Danged if I know,” Rice said in response to the question Wednesday.
"She's frustrated this won't go away,"Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference along with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. "She's frustrated that she appeared on national television and told a story about Benghazi that has absolutely collapsed."
Aside from wrongly linking an anti-Islam video to the Benghazi attack -- when U.S. personnel were reporting a direct assault by Ansar al-Sharia within the first 24 hours -- Rice's statements about U.S. consulate security are under fresh scrutiny.
On three network Sunday shows – ABC’s “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday” -- Rice said security was "strong" or "significant" at the consulate on the day of the attack, which was incorrect.
"Should U.S. security have been tighter at that consulate given the history of terror activity in Benghazi?" “Fox News Sunday’s” Chris Wallace asked Rice.
"Well, we obviously did have a strong security presence. And, unfortunately, two of the four Americans who died in Benghazi were there to provide security," Rice responded, incorrectly linking the presence of former Navy Seals Ty Woods and Glen Doherty to consulate security. Both men were killed in a mortar attack on the CIA annex, eight hours after the consulate was overrun.
Graham and Ayotte said the administration -- whether it was the White House or State Department -- should explain who briefed Rice on the consulate's security status, and the individual or individuals should be fired. And if nobody briefed her on that, Graham said, she should resign.
"They're completely incompetent, or they were misleading her about the level of security because we were six weeks before an election, or she made it up on her own. And if she just made this up and talked about the level of security without any information and just wanted to portray strong security, then she should resign," Graham said.
A letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday, signed by 37 Republican senators, also requested a select committee in that chamber -- citing the new committee in the House and allegations the administration has withheld documents. Ayotte and Graham said the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees had not issued findings from their Benghazi investigations.
Ayotte also said presidential adviser Ben Rhodes should testify, after a Sept. 14, 2012 email from him was released to Judicial Watch as the result of a federal lawsuit. Critics charge Rhodes linked Benghazi to spontaneous protests that were the result of an anti-Islam video for political purposes.
"Where did Ben Rhodes get these? Right? Ben's not the intel officer right? … One of the important reasons he needs to testify is what's the source of all these talking points what happened at that Saturday meeting and who came up with this?" said Ayotte, referencing a White House meeting where the talking points were finalized.
Rice told NBC News in 2012 that she appeared on the Sunday talk shows because then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "had had an incredibly grueling week dealing with the protests around the Middle East and North Africa." The senators asked if that was really true, and if it is, what it might say about Clinton's fitness to be president.
"So the reason, according to Susan Rice, that Secretary Clinton was not on television was because she had a grueling week. That to me is incredibly important and must be answered," Graham said.
A press release on Sept. 11 at 10:07 p.m. from Clinton --after foreign service officer Sean Smith's death at the consulate was confirmed -- is believed to be the first public reference by the administration linking Benghazi to the anti-Islam video. Ayotte and Graham questioned whether the former secretary of state issued the release on her own or consulted with the president first, and what intelligence it was based on.
Recently released emails to Judicial Watch show a short wire service report which described "an armed mob protesting over a film" was widely circulated among State Department officials and U.S. officials at the U.N. The five-sentence AFP blurb does not link the claim to a named, credible source.
Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.