J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Thursday, July 11, 2013 | 3:35 p.m.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's choice as chief U.S. envoy for Europe defended her role in the talking points created after last year's deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, at a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that seemed focused as much on the tragedy as the future presidential prospects of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Victoria Nuland refused to blame Clinton, for whom she served as spokeswoman when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission last Sept. 11. Nuland said she objected to some of the administration's talking points in the days after Benghazi because they were inconsistent, inaccurate and risked prejudicing the FBI investigation into those responsible for the attack.
"It was not for me to decide what we knew or what we could declassify," Nuland told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
No one at the hearing expressed doubt about Nuland's qualifications for the job of assistant secretary of state for Europe— a point a potential Republican opponent of Clinton for the presidency in 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio, conceded.
But Nuland's prospects for confirmation appeared tied to how she answered questions on the Benghazi attack, with several Republican senators asking her why the Obama administration shifted its public explanations of the assault. They also wanted to know why, shortly afterward, the president's former U.N. ambassador and current national security adviser, Susan Rice, blamed it on extremists who hijacked a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video.
The consistent question was whether Nuland acted at Clinton's behest when she weighed in on the talking points being prepared for Congress. She sought the removal of references to a Libyan militia group and jihadists possibly laying siege to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
In publicly released emails, Nuland, a career foreign service officer who has held senior positions in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, cited concerns of her "building's leadership." On Thursday, she said she never spoke to Clinton about the talking points and hadn't read any intelligence reports about the attack.
"My responsibilities were to ensure consistency of our public messaging but not to make policy," she said. "So I never edited these talking points. I never made changes. I simply said that I thought that policy people needed to look at them.
Rarely is a potential assistant secretary of state expected to expound on such politically sensitive policy issues.
But Nuland has powerful Democratic patrons who at least at one time harbored presidential ambitions — and in Clinton's case, perhaps still. Nuland served as key adviser to Clinton and her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, both of whom have run for president. She also has served as a foreign policy adviser to former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney.
Since Obama's re-election, Benghazi has been the centerpiece of an intensive effort by Republicans to scrutinize Clinton's tenure and undermine her strong favorability in public polls as she mulls a future campaign.
An independent review last year blamed the State Department for inadequate security but absolved Clinton of any personal wrongdoing. Still, American Crossroads, a group connected to GOP strategist Karl Rove, released a web video in May that was critical of Clinton's handling of the Benghazi case, amid lingering accusations from some Republicans that the Obama administration's changing story reflected an attempt to mislead the country about an act of terrorism in the heat of a presidential campaign.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was the first to press Nuland, beginning by recalling his heated exchange with Clinton at her final hearing in January. He quoted Clinton's response to him at the time: "What difference at this point does it make?"
"The question I have is do you believe that in your role representing the United States government that the American people deserve the truth out of members of the administration?" Johnson asked.
"Senator, the American people deserve the truth," Nuland answered. "This body deserves the truth. Those of us who were friends of the victims, as I was, deserve the truth."
Moving on to the State Department "leadership" Nuland cited in her email, Johnson asked: "Who are those bosses? What about names? I mean, who are those individuals?"
Nuland would only say she reported to the "full spectrum of undersecretaries, deputy secretaries." The only person she said she consulted with about the talking points was Jake Sullivan, then Clinton's policy planning director and now Vice President Joe Biden's national security adviser — the only U.S. official she identified by name.
Nuland later told Rubio that she never spoke at any time with Clinton about the talking points.
For his part, the Florida Republican was candid in why he wanted answers about Benghazi from Nuland.
"I think there's very little debate on this committee about your qualifications to serve in this post," Rubio told Nuland. "The only reason why you're getting questions, quite frankly, about the Benghazi issue is because you were in that policy role. And because the committee is not holding any further hearings on it, you're, quite frankly, the only witness we have ... with regards to these things that we want answers to."
Still, Nuland couldn't answer several questions from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky related to the weapons used in the attack and if they had any connection to U.S. intelligence operations in Libya or Syria. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming also wanted more details about who was ultimately responsible for changes in the talking points and why.
No Democrats present at the hearing asked Nuland about Benghazi. She has already won the support of another failed presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and other leading Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.