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A Times Editorial

Attacks on Rice miss the real issue

Capitol Hill Republicans accusing the U.N. ambassador over the apparent withholding of information in the days following the Benghazi attacks are focused on the wrong target. The real issue isn't whom President Barack Obama may nominate as the next secretary of state, but why the intelligence community erased all mention of al-Qaida from talking points in the days following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. The American public should not have been left in the dark.

For weeks, Republicans have been attacking Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador, who was dispatched to the Sunday news show circuit five days after the attack that killed four Americans, including Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. She presented the same description the White House and State Department had used, suggesting "extremist elements" initiated the attack amid a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video.

But last week, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gen. David Petraeus, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door meeting that wasn't the whole story. From the outset, he said, the CIA believed al-Qaida affiliates were involved. And ultimately, CBS News has reported, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, with the consent of the CIA and the FBI, opted to strike all reference to the terrorist network or "terrorism" from the unclassified talking points delivered to Rice. The White House and State Department were not involved in the changes, CBS reported.

Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham from taking the opportunity to try to undercut someone well qualified to be on Obama's short list to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And 97 House members — including 10 Republicans from Florida — took the time earlier this week to sign a letter warning Obama that should he nominate Rice for secretary of state, they would work to block her confirmation. But only the Senate confirms the president's choice for secretary of state.

Apparently it is easier to attack the messenger to score political points in the wake of a disappointing election than to get down to the business of governing amid a war on terror. Whether the Senate would find Rice qualified to be secretary of state is a question for another day. The more responsible line of inquiry — and the question the Obama administration needs to answer — is why information was withheld from the American public and whether the decision was justified.

Attacks on Rice miss the real issue 11/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 22, 2012 3:30am]
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