WASHINGTON -- National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Sunday defended controversial statements she made during a round of 2012 TV appearances about the attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, saying there was never an attempt to mislead the public.
During an interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Rice also expressed hope that the chaos in Ukraine would soon lead to a unity government and warned Russia that it would be a "grave mistake" to intervene militarily in the conflict.
It marked Rice’s first appearance on a network Sunday show since September 2012, just days after the attack in Libya that claimed the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. personnel.
Her adherence to administration talking points at the time -- that the attack appeared to be a “spontaneous” response to protests in Egypt over an offensive YouTube video -- were later cast into doubt and continue to be a source of debate. Some accused the administration of attempting downplay the terrorist involvement in the attack.
At the time, Obama and other administration officials defended Rice, who was then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But blowback from her appearances likely cost her an appointment as secretary of State in Obama’s second term.
Rice on Sunday defended her remarks, saying she shared “the best information that we had at the time.”
“The information I provided -- which I explained to you was what we had at the moment, it could change, I commented that this was based on what we knew on that morning – was provided to me and my colleagues and indeed to Congress by the intelligence community,” she said. “That’s been well-validated in many different ways since. And that information turned out in some respects not to be 100% correct. But the notion that somehow I or anybody else in the administration misled the American people is patently false, and I think that’s been amply demonstrated.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the lead critics of the administration's handling of Benghazi, laughed when shown Rice's comments during his appearance on CBS' "Face The Nation."
“I’m almost speechless," he said. “The information was totally misleading, totally false. And for Susan Rice to say such a thing, I think, is a little embarrassing to tell you the truth.”
On Ukraine, Rice rejected the idea that Washington and Moscow were nearing a return to Cold War-style tensions, with the violence in Kiev the latest flash point between the nations.
She said that President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree that Ukraine should remain “unified, whole, independent,” and that both leaders are eager to see the implementation of a recent agreement between the government of President Viktor Yanukovich and Ukraine's pro-European opposition.
Yanukovich “has gone” and is “not leading at the present,” Rice said when asked if the president should step down.
“We are going to have a unity government,” she said. “We are going to have near-term elections. We are going to have constitutional reform. And that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people and the interests of the United States and Europe.”
But she cautioned Russia against moving militarily to reinstate the deposed president. "That would be a grave mistake," she said.
Rice said Obama has been “exceedingly pragmatic” in his dealings with Russia, emphasizing the need for the U.S. to cooperate with Russia where possible on issues such as Afghanistan, while speaking out on issues like Syria and human rights where they disagree.
“The president is very plain and very forceful in his dealings with Putin,” she said. “But it is not necessary, nor is it in our interests, to return to a Cold War construct which is long out of date and doesn’t reflect the realities of the 21st century.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), speaking on Fox, said that the situation in Ukraine presents an opportunity for Obama to “reset the reset” with Russia, a reference to Obama's earlier unsuccessful attempt to improve ties between Washington and Moscow.
“Now that the Olympics are over, we need to watch the behavior of the Russians, and I believe the president needs to up his game and send a clear, unequivocal public message to Putin not to interfere in what is happening in Ukraine, to let the Ukrainian people determine their future, to ensure that there is no interference in their sovereignty,” she said.