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For 2 diplomats, different paths to weather the Benghazi uproar

By Mark Landler

New York Times


WASHINGTON » The political tempest over last September's deadly attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, has left a path of dented careers in its wake. But as with many storms, the residual damage is proving to be distinctly uneven.

Consider the cases of Susan E. Rice and Victoria Nuland, two high-ranking diplomats whose internal roles were put on display when the White House released emails this month documenting how the administration had drafted its official talking points about the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations and the favorite to be President Barack Obama's next national security adviser, continues to be criticized by Senate Republicans for going on Sunday news programs a few days after the attacks to deliver the talking points, which later proved to be inaccurate. Yet the emails reinforced her lack of involvement in the drafting process.

Nuland, a former State Department spokeswoman nominated by Obama to be an assistant secretary of state, was backed by some of those same Republicans, even though the emails show she pushed to edit the talking points — a process critics say was calculated to airbrush the White House's account of the attack for political reasons.

What accounts for the different treatment?

There are several factors, according to administration and congressional officials, from personal relationships to the difference between a behind-the-scenes bureaucrat and a political ally who becomes the public face of the White House. But politics looms above all.

"Susan Rice was exposed because, at a critical moment, she was out there with a narrative about President Obama's foreign policy that the Republicans couldn't abide," said Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"Toria was buried in the internal bureaucratic ticktock," Miller said, using Nuland's nickname. "She is also someone who has very good contacts across the aisle, and around Washington. Susan fits the Republican anti-Obama narrative; Toria does not."

Nuland, a well-regarded 29-year veteran of the Foreign Service, once served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and as ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. She is married to Robert Kagan, a neoconservative historian and commentator who advised Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign.

Rice, by contrast, was a former Clinton administration official and a foreign policy adviser to Obama in his 2008 campaign, during which she tangled with the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. When Rice emerged as a leading candidate for secretary of state after Obama's re-election, McCain became one of her most formidable opponents on Capitol Hill. Under pressure, she eventually pulled her name from consideration.

Last week, McCain rejected the request of a senior White House official that Republicans owed Rice an apology. Sen. Lindsey Graham , R-S.C., said that rather than an apology, Rice deserved a subpoena to explain why she had misled the public by delivering talking points that were later retracted as erroneous. A day later, when Obama nominated Nuland as assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, Graham and McCain issued a joint statement declaring, "Ambassador Victoria Nuland has a long and distinguished record of service to our nation in both Republican and Democrat administrations."

In some ways, Rice and Nuland, who both declined to comment for this article, had parallel experiences with Benghazi. Neither was involved in the security decisions surrounding the U.S. mission or a part of the frantic aftermath of the attack.

Both became involved later: Nuland, when she was brought into a Friday night deliberation between the State Department, the CIA, the White House, and other agencies about talking points prepared by the CIA; and Rice, when she was handed the finished talking points the night before she went on television.

Defenders of Nuland said she pushed back on the CIA's initial account because they went beyond what she had been telling reporters and because they protected the agency at the expense of the State Department - noting, for example, that the CIA had issued multiple warnings about terrorist threats in Libya.

Defenders of Rice said the talking points she delivered represented the best assessment of the intelligence community on the Sunday after the attack. She emphasized that this assessment could change with new information, and expressed regret later for saying that al-Qaida had been decimated rather than just the "core of al-Qaida."

Rice and Nuland both went to Capitol Hill to explain their role. Rice's visit, in which she was accompanied by the CIA's acting director at the time, Michael J. Morell, did not mollify the senators. Nuland's more recent visit seems to have been more successful.

"She told me her pushback was to try to protect the State Department from, in her view, unfair blame," Graham said in a telephone interview Wednesday. Asked how that differed from criticism that the administration had scrubbed the talking points, he said, "That's a good question. She's going to have to explain the role she played."

But Graham drew a distinction between being involved in drafting talking points — "protecting your bureaucratic turf," as he put it — and delivering an account to the American people.

The good news for Rice is that the post of national security adviser does not require confirmation by the Senate. Administration officials said she remained a prohibitive favorite. The current national security adviser, Tom Donilon, is expected to step down later this year.

Graham sounded conciliatory about Rice's potential future in the White House. He said that the choice of national security adviser was exclusively that of the president, and that Rice had the credentials for the job. "She's going to have her plate full, if she's chosen," he said. "I will not be petty. I will put my differences on Benghazi aside and work with her."

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