Collins continues attacks on Rice, says Kerry would be "excellent" secretary of state

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, for a meeting with UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice continued her fight Wednesday to win over skeptics in the Senate who could block her chances at becoming the next U.S. secretary of state, while Republican lawmakers said they were even more troubled after face-to-face meetings with her over the handling of the Sept. 11 deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

Updated: 3:57 p.m. ET

As U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice persists with outreach efforts to congressional Republicans concerning the sequence of events surrounding September 11 attacks in Benghazi, Senate Republicans are continuing their attacks on her credibility, not only questioning her capability to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state but in some cases also suggesting an alternate candidate for the job.

In remarks following a meeting with Rice on Wednesday morning, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins continued where her colleagues John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte left off yesterday, hammering Rice's characterization of how the events unfolded in Benghazi and threatening to block her potential nomination as secretary of state.

"I continue to be troubled by the fact that the U.N. ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of the contentious presidential election campaign, by agreeing to go on the Sunday shows to present the administration's position," Collins told reporters on Wednesday. "

On September 16, five days after the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, Rice appeared on a handful of Sunday morning political talk shows to discuss the incident. Her comments on those shows were guided by CIA talking points that, according to a U.S. intelligence official, "were written, upon request, so members of Congress and senior officials could say something preliminary and unclassified about the attacks, if needed," and reflected the possibility that the attacks were a result of spontaneous protests spurred by an anti-Muslim video.

In a statement yesterday, Rice clarified that there was "no protest or demonstration in Benghazi" and that "the intelligence assessment has evolved" since her Sept. 16 comments. She argued that "neither I nor anyone else in the Administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process, and the Administration updated Congress and the American people as our assessments evolved." CBS News has learned that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to "al Qaeda" and "terrorism" from Rice's talking points with the agreement of the CIA and FBI, and that the White House or State Department did not make those changes.

Still, Rice, who is considered a top pick to replace Clinton as secretary of state, has been on the receiving end of scathing criticism from Republicans, who have suggested she used the talk show appearances to mislead the American people for the president's political benefit. Now, a handful of Republicans, including Collins, are threatening to block her nomination if she is tapped for the job. Collins also suggested on Wednesday that Rice bore some responsibility for 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tunisia, when she was assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bill Clinton.

"What troubles me so much is the Benghazi attack in many ways echoes the attacks on those embassies in 1998, when Susan Rice was head of the African region for our State Department," she said. "In both cases, the ambassadors begged for additional security."

Collins said Rice told her she was "not involved directly in turning down the requests" for extra security, but argued that "given her position as assistant secretary for African affairs, she had to be aware of the general threat assessment and of the ambassador's repeated requests for more security."

In his daily press briefing today, White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated the president's defense of Rice. He said the Obama administration is focusing its efforts on finding out what actually happened in Benghazi rather than what he characterized as politically driven criticisms of Rice's talk show appearances more than a month ago. Mr. Obama, too, called Rice "extraordinary" during a cabinet meeting later in the day.

"Ambassador Rice was using unclassified talking points that were developed by the intelligence community," he told reporters. "They represented the best assessment by our intelligence professionals about what had happened in Benghazi at that time... Even at that time the intelligence community was making clear, and Ambassador Rice and I and others were making clear, that these were preliminary assessments."

Similar to Graham and Ayotte yesterday, Collins said today she would not be able to support a potential Rice nomination for secretary of state unless she received "additional information."

"She's not been posted yet. Our Homeland Security Committee investigation is ongoing. There are many different players in this, and there's much yet to be learned," she said. "So I think it would be premature for me to reach that judgment now."

Collins was less hesitant about how Sen. John Kerry, another potential secretary of state pick, might fare in the nomination process, however.

"I think John Kerry would be an excellent appointment and would be easily confirmed by his colleagues," she said.

Collins has not been the first Republican Senator to pump Kerry up for the appointment: Republican Senator John Barrasso, of Wyoming, said Kerry would "sail through" the Senate and that Mr. Obama should nominate him if he wants an easy nominating process.

One possible motive for the GOP's apparent pro-Kerry push is the fact that, if tapped, he'd be forced to give up his Senate seat in Massachusetts, thereby opening it up for a bid from Republican Scott Brown. Brown, who was recently defeated by Elizabeth Warren for the state's other Senate seat, is considered by far the GOP's best shot for picking up a seat in the solidly blue state of Massachusetts in the case of a special election.