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Obama's Europe envoy to face Benghazi questions

Obama's Europe envoy to face Benghazi questions
Victoria Nuland is seen in an April 9, 2008, file photo. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
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WASHINGTON (AP) - A confirmation hearing Thursday for President Barack Obama's choice as chief American diplomat for Europe could provide some surprising fireworks on the administration's handling of the Benghazi attack, its plan to arm Syria's rebels, and more.

Rarely is a potential assistant secretary of state expected to expound on such politically sensitive policy issues.

But Victoria Nuland's prominence as spokeswoman and adviser to secretaries of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry placed her in the middle of some of Obama's biggest foreign policy challenges recently, including last year's attack in Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Some Republicans say they hope to get answers from Nuland to their questions about the Benghazi attack at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"There are still some things that need to be known," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who told Clinton earlier this year he would have fired her after Benghazi. Paul told The Associated Press he hoped to learn what weapons were used in the attack and whether they had any connection to U.S. intelligence operations in Libya or Syria. Nuland, he said, "was Hillary Clinton's spokeswoman and I'm guessing she was in the room for a lot of conversations."

As a Russia expert, Nuland also probably will be called on to give her view of Moscow's continued protection of American secrets leaker Edward Snowden and the overall trajectory of the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations under Obama. That effort has stumbled over many issues, including Syria's civil war and a Kremlin crackdown on pro-democracy organizations.

Benghazi presents greater unpredictability.

Leading Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have come out in favor of Nuland despite accusations by some in their party that she helped State Department superiors water down the now-infamous talking points used by the administration to inform Americans about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission.

"There are many questions still unanswered," McCain told reporters Wednesday. He said he saw nothing wrong with how Nuland acted but he still wants the administration to provide more information about those who survived the attack and those who ultimately signed off on the talking points.

It's unclear whether everyone shares that view.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the committee, said he wouldn't raise the issue Thursday.

But Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who had a heated exchange with Clinton at her final Senate hearing in January, said only some of his Benghazi concerns were allayed in private discussions with Nuland. "We'll see what happens at the hearing," he said.

Republicans have focused on the administration's talking points since they were used by Susan Rice, then Obama's U.N. ambassador and now his national security adviser, for her public explanation five days after the attack. Rice blamed it on extremists hijacking a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video.

As officials rescinded that account, some Republicans accused the administration of trying to mislead the country about an act of terrorism in the heat of a presidential campaign. Ten months later, congressional investigations continue.

As the talking points were being edited, Nuland insisted on removing a reference to a CIA warning about the potential for anti-American demonstrations in Cairo and jihadists trying to break into that embassy. In emails released by the administration, she warned that such wording "could be abused" by lawmakers to criticize her department. She specifically cited the concerns of her "building's leadership."

Few accuse the three-decade-long foreign service officer - a one-time adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and a former NATO ambassador - of instigating any sort of cover-up. But with Clinton weighing a possible run at the presidency in 2016, some Republicans want to hear more about why the points were edited and at whose insistence.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in May subpoenaed all Benghazi-related correspondence from Nuland and several other State Department officials.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations European affairs subcommittee, said he'd focus on U.S.-European trade talks, rebalancing the military burden among NATO allies, instability in Turkey and Russia's crackdown on civil society groups. But he added, "I'm resigned to the fact that the Republicans are going to use any and every opportunity to talk about Benghazi."

Benghazi isn't the only possible flashpoint for the hearing.

Nuland was Clinton's spokeswoman when she and former CIA Director David Petraeus lobbied Obama to send weapons to vetted, moderate units of the Syrian opposition.

A year later, administration officials say the president has approved such military assistance but the operation's details are still being worked out. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, backed by Russia, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, have made considerable gains on the battlefield and firmed up their grip over much of the country.

Many in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike, believe the administration has acted too slowly on Syria.

As Obama's top diplomat for Europe, Nuland also would be entrusted with coordinating U.S.-Russian cooperation on preventing Iran from reaching nuclear weapons capacity and combatting terrorism in places such as Chechnya. The suspected Boston Marathon bombers were ethnic Chechens.
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