WASHINGTON – Republican senators' angry criticism of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice over her initial account of the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Libya smacks of sexism and racism, a dozen female members of the House said Friday.
In unusually personal terms, the Democratic women lashed out at Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham who earlier this week called Rice unqualified and untrustworthy and promised to scuttle her nomination if President Barack Obama nominates her to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"All of the things they have disliked about things that have gone on in the administration, they have never called a male unqualified, not bright, not trustworthy," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the next chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "There is a clear sexism and racism that goes with these comments being made by unfortunately Sen. McCain and others."
At a Capitol Hill news conference, the female lawmakers, the majority of them African American like Rice, suggested that the Republicans are bitter about Obama's re-election and taking it out on U.N. ambassador.
"To batter this woman because they don't feel they have the ability to batter President Obama is something we the women are not going to stand by and watch," said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. "Their feckless and reckless speculation is unworthy of their offices as senators."
For weeks, the criticism of Rice has focused on her comments about the Libya attack. The lawmakers' contention that the ambassador's race and sex are factors come just over a week after an election when women and minorities heavily favored Obama and Democrats.
The Democratic women directed particular ire against McCain, who said Rice was "not being very bright" in her comments. The women pointed out that Rice was a Rhodes scholar who graduated tops in her Stanford University class whereas McCain was in the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy.
McCain, who was attending the Halifax International Security Forum, was questioned about the lawmakers' criticism. "I think they are entitled to their opinions," he said.
A spokesman for Graham had no immediate reaction to the remarks.
In a separate appearance after a briefing on Libya, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the growing criticism of Rice "is almost as if the attempt is to assassinate her character."
McCain, Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., also have been pressing for a Watergate-style special congressional committee to investigate the Libyan raid. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., rejected the idea, saying the ongoing investigations by House and Senate committees are sufficient and should be allowed to proceed.
"The elections are over; it is time to put an end to the partisan politicization of national security and begin working together to strengthen our efforts to dismantle and destroy the terrorist networks that threaten us," Reid wrote in a letter to McCain.
At issue are Rice's statements in a series of television interviews five days after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Republicans insist that she should have labeled the incident an act of terrorism rather than cite a protest over an anti-Muslim video that had roiled cities in the Middle East.
Rice said at the time she was providing the "best information and the best assessment we have today."
"In fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video," she said. "People gathered outside the embassy, and then it grew very violent. Those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control."
CIA acting director Mike Morell has told congressional committees this week that Rice was relying on an initial intelligence assessment that eventually proved incorrect. Former CIA Director David Petraeus told congressional committees Friday that Rice's comments "reflected the best intelligence at the time that could be released publicly," according to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a lawmaker who attended the session.
The female House members argued that Rice would have no motivation to mislead the American people.
The Democratic women also contrasted McCain and Graham's criticism with their defense of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had warned of weapons of mass destruction in pressing for war in Iraq that killed more than 4,400 Americans. No weapons of mass destruction were found.
"It's interesting to me that we're not discussing another Rice who went before all of the Sunday talk shows some years ago," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
The Democratic women demanded that McCain and Graham retract their criticism.
"It is a shame that anytime something goes wrong, they pick on women and minorities," Fudge said.
Said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.: "We will not allow a brilliant public servant's record to be mugged to cut off her consideration to be secretary of state."
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Halifax, Nova Scotia, contributed to this report.