Benghazi Talking Points Could Scuttle Top Diplomat Nominee

Republicans aim to use a confirmation hearing for Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s spokeswoman during the Benghazi scandal, to demand new answers about it. Josh Rogin reports.

President Obama’s nominee to become the State Department’s top official dealing with Europe is facing a tough confirmation battle due to her role in the administration’s reaction to the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.

Some observers concluded that Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s spokeswoman during the Benghazi scandal, would have a smooth path to confirmation for the job of assistant secretary of State for Europe after GOP senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a semi-supportive statement on her last week. But behind the scenes, several other Republican senators are planning to put several roadblocks in front of her confirmation. Some of their concerns are related to her involvement in editing the official talking points following the Benghazi attack and some are related to parts of the Benghazi scandal Nuland had nothing to do with.

The McCain-Graham statement was a reflection of the unique character of the Nuland nomination. A career foreign-service officer, she has served Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney, was the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, and is married to influential neoconservative writer Robert Kagan, who currently works at the Brookings Institution.

“Ambassador Victoria Nuland has a long and distinguished record of service to our nation in both Republican and Democrat administrations," McCain and Graham said. "She is knowledgeable and well-versed on the major foreign policy issues as well as respected by foreign policy experts in both parties. We look forward to her upcoming confirmation hearings in the United States Senate.”

But there are several GOP senators, including some party leaders, who have no problem attacking the Nuland nomination. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R–Texas), who led the confirmation battles against top figures including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, responded to Nuland’s nomination last month over Twitter with one word: “Kidding?”

Other GOP senators told The Daily Beast that they wanted to know exactly what her involvement was in the crafting of the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used on September 16, 2012, on the Sunday news shows to argue that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to events in Cairo caused by an anti-Islam video.

Interagency e-mails released last month showed that the CIA originally included information in the talking points about five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi in the months leading up to the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Nuland wrote that she had “serious concerns" about "arming members of Congress,” and she said such information “could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either? Concerned ..."

She also objected to the CIA’s suggestion that the talking points include that members of groups associated with al Qaeda, specifically Ansar al Sharia, participated in the attack. Including that information "will come back to us at podium,” Nuland wrote, referring to her role as the daily press briefer at State.

Sen. Richard Burr (R–North Carolina) told The Daily Beast in an interview Tuesday he doesn’t think the Nuland nomination should move forward at all until Republican concerns are fully addressed.

“I don’t think Victoria Nuland should even have a confirmation hearing until we have a full understanding of what happened in Benghazi as it relates to her participation in the talking points, who instructed her to do that, who were the folks she referenced to in her office that would be unhappy. I think all of that has to be vetted before any consideration is given to that nomination,” said Burr.

He even threatened to put a hold on her nomination if his questions aren’t answered to his satisfaction.

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“I wouldn’t let her go without a full understanding of her participation,” Burr said.

Sen. John Barrasso (R–Wyoming) told The Daily Beast Tuesday that he also has several concerns about the Nuland nomination related to Benghazi. “Her role in this has been a concern and this will come up as part of her confirmation process,” he said.

Graham told The Daily Beast in a Tuesday interview that the GOP will also use the Nuland nomination to get answers to several other outstanding questions about the Benghazi attack that may have nothing to do with her. For example, GOP senators want to know the names of the survivors of the Benghazi attack, the names of the attendees at the September 15 meeting to change the talking points, and the exact whereabouts and actions of President Obama on the night of the attack.

“Let me tell you, that’s one of the leverages we have here. They’ve stonewalled us,” Graham said. “I think people will use the nomination to extract from the White House relevant information. And they should, quite frankly.”

Several Democratic senators told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the Republicans are wrong to keep the Benghazi scandal alive, and to relate Nuland’s nomination to it.

“I would certainly hope [the Nuland nomination] wouldn’t get held up,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–California), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I think Benghazi has been an extraordinarily divisive issue and that we need to put it to bed and get back to work.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ben Cardin (D–Maryland) tried to turn the issue back on the GOP. “There are some legitimate issues to be addressed, but it would be nice if the Republicans fund some security issues, instead of just trying to make politics of it,” he said.

Right or wrong, a fight over the Nuland nomination focused on the Benghazi scandal is coming, McCain told The Daily Beast Tuesday.

“I think one thing that is clear is that she was protecting her boss. I’m not sure that there’s anything wrong with that,” he said. “But there are other questions, obviously that she is going to have to answer. Some of my colleagues have already told me that.”

Ben Jacobs contributed reporting to this story.