The Cable

Will Benghazi furor keep Susan Rice out of the White House?

Insiders with ties to the Obama administration tell The Cable that U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has become the heir apparent to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon -- a post at the epicenter of foreign-policy decision making and arguably more influential than secretary of state, a job for which she withdrew her candidacy last fall amid severe political pressure.

"It's definitely happening," a source who recently spoke with Rice told The Cable. "She is sure she is coming and so too her husband and closest friends."

"Susan is a very likely candidate to replace him whenever he would choose to leave," agreed Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama and counselor at the Washington Institute. "She is close to the president, has the credentials, and has a breadth of experience."

Both sources said the timing of succession was uncertain. "I don't believe Tom Donilon is about to leave but would be surprised if he were to remain for the whole second term," Ross said. "But in answer to your question, [Rice's appointment] is very logical."

Rice's candidacy for secretary of state imploded in November after she recited talking points about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi on five Sunday talk shows that turned out to be erroneous.

The question now is whether Benghazi's return to the spotlight will affect her potential appointment at a time when the White House is reeling from revelations about the IRS's scrutiny of conservative groups and the Justice Department's subpoena of the calling records of AP journalists.

For now, prominent Republicans don't seem inclined to make a fuss.

In November, Arizona Sen. John McCain pledged to "do everything in my power to block her from becoming secretary of state"; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "I don't think she deserves to be promoted"; and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said she'd make a better DNC chair: "I think most of us want someone who is more independent minded."

But now -- even as Benghazi fever reaches a crescendo following last week's dramatic "whistleblower" hearing and Wednesday's release of 100 pages of Benghazi emails -- the GOP's desire to check her rise has seemingly evaporated, and Republicans have few tools to prevent her appointment, which would not require Senate confirmation.

When asked if he was concerned about a future National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Corker, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Cable he was sitting this one out.

"In the case of national security advisor," he said, "whomever serves in that position serves at the pleasure of the president. So it's totally his prerogative." When The Cable asked Graham and McCain the same question, their spokesmen declined to comment. 

In some ways, the deflated interest in Rice is only natural. Though the testimony of State Department witnesses last week served to highlight the inaccuracy of Rice's talk-show appearances, new details of the editing process of her talking points show her nowhere near the drafting process -- just as the administration has long maintained.

Meanwhile, a more tantalizing GOP target has emerged in the form of Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite to assume the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Democrats, Republicans and witnesses fixated on Clinton 32 times during discussions in last week's hearing.

Rice spokeswoman Erin Pelton declined to comment for this article. White House National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, "We don't have any personnel announcements to make at this time, and Mr. Donilon has no plans to depart at this point." She added that Donilon is "fully engaged in managing our national security agenda, from his recent trip to Moscow and major address on global energy, to planning for a trip to China in late May and more upcoming speaking events."

The administration hasn't shied away from heaping praise on Rice. Last week, at a gala for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Vice President Joe Biden told the audience that the U.N. ambassador has "the absolute, total, complete confidence of the president," and that when she speaks on issues of foreign policy, nobody doubts she's speaking for Obama.

Back in March, when colleague Colum Lynch first reported whispers of Rice's comeback, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, spoke glowingly of Rice's relationship with the president. "Susan always maintains close relations with the president and his national security team, and that continues to be the case," he said. "If anything, the way she handled the Benghazi situation -- and then the withdrawal -- only enhanced her relations here, because she did so with grace and good humor."

The president himself has gone out of his way to wink at an expanded role for Rice within his administration. "I have every confidence that Susan has limitless capability to serve our country now and in the years to come, and know that I will continue to rely on her as an advisor and friend," Obama said in a December statement.

The Cable

Issa and Pickering clash over new Benghazi hearing

In the battle to shape the American public's perception of what happened in Benghazi, logistics is everything. On Wednesday, the two emerging rivals in this struggle, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and retired Amb. Thomas Pickering, co-chair of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) for the incident, clashed over the appropriate venue to discuss the U.S. government's response to last September's terrorist attack.

On Sunday, Issa announced his invitation to hear Pickering's sworn testimony in a private "deposition" to be followed by a public hearing. On Tuesday, Pickering sent a letter to Issa that essentially said thanks but no thanks -- I'd prefer a public hearing only.

In an interview with The Cable Wednesday morning, Pickering said he opposed a private deposition for two reasons not mentioned in his Tuesday letter. First, he made no bones about his view that Issa is turning the Benghazi tragedy into a "political circus." And, "now that the circus has been launched, we want to make our case in front of the public," Pickering said, referring to himself and retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the other ARB co-chair.

Second, Pickering found the entire idea of a deposition to be inappropriate given his role in reviewing the investigation. "Depositions are usually reserved for fact witnesses and people under investigation," he said. "We are not fact witnesses to Benghazi and we are not under investigation, at least not yet," he said, laughing, in a nod to Issa's aggressive appetite for Oversight Committee probes. Additionally, depositions are held "in a dark room with investigative personnel and no opportunity to have your voice heard," he said, "while everyone else already got their voice heard."

But Issa spokesman Frederick Hill tells The Cable the ambassador has nothing to worry about. "The committee's request to Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen is for them to voluntarily appear for transcribed interviews prior to a public hearing just as former Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks did," Hill said. "The committee has requested an answer by 5 p.m. today." Because Pickering never expressly refused a deposition in his Tuesday letter, Issa sent another letter this morning repeating his request for a private, transcribed interview.

"I appreciate your willingness to testify publicly," writes Issa. "However, your response failed to indicate your willingness to appear for a transcribed interview."

Why is Issa so intent on a private meeting? "Your transcribed testimony will allow Members of the Committee to ask informed questions during a subsequent hearing," Issa writes. A transcribed interview would also help Issa arrange the subsequent public hearing as he sees fit, and take away some of the spontaneity involved in the back-and-forth questioning.

The battle over the hearing's format comes as Pickering and Mullen's ARB report takes increasing fire from Republicans for failing to focus on higher-ranking State Department personnel, including the secretary of state at the time, Hillary Clinton. During last Wednesday's hearing, Hicks, the No. 2 diplomat in Libya during the assault, said the ARB had "let people off the hook," and another witness said it failed to interview "people who I personally know were involved in key decisions."

On Meet the Press  Sunday, David Gregory picked up this line of argument, asking Pickering, "Did you not pay sufficient attention to -- and time with the secretary of state?"

"I believe we did," responded Pickering. "We had a session with the secretary. It took place very near the end of the report. It took place when we had preliminary judgments about who made the decisions, where they were made, and by whom they were reviewed. We felt that that was more than sufficient for the preponderance of evidence that we had collected to make our decisions and you know that our decisions was two of those people should be separated from their jobs. Two others failed in their performance."

Whether or not Issa and Pickering can settle their differences and schedule a hearing together is yet to be seen. Read their dueling letters here and here.