Sen. Kelly Ayotte, one of the Republicans harshly critical of Ambassador Susan Rice, described Rice's initial characterization of the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya as misleading, but stopped short of calling the remarks intentionally so.
"Certainly she misled the American public," Ayotte said in an interview Tuesday on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360." "I think that she would say that. She'd have to say that because she began our meeting today admitting that the representations about the video and the protests were wrong, and the impression left [for] the American people was misleading."
To the question of whether the comments were intentionally misleading, Ayotte continued, "I don't know that I am in a position to question [Rice's] motives, but its deeply troubling to me that someone of that important position would go on every major news network knowing that she had obviously previously reviewed other classified reports that left a different impression with the omission of the important reference to Al Qaeda."
The New Hampshire Republican was joined by Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning with Rice, who represents the U.S. at the United Nations. Rice was put forward by the Obama administration to speak the weekend after the attacks, which killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
After the meeting, Ayotte said at a news conference that she is "more troubled today knowing having met with the acting director of the CIA [Michael Morell] and Ambassador Rice because it is certainly clear from the beginning that we knew that those with ties to al Qaeda were involved in the attack on the embassy and clearly the impression that was given, the information given to the American people was wrong.
"In fact, Ambassador Rice said today, absolutely it was wrong," Ayotte said.
Rice said in a statement after the Tuesday meeting with Ayotte, McCain, and Graham that "neither I nor anyone else in the Administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process."
In an appearance on NBC September 16, Rice said the attack involved "a spontaneous reaction to a video" which had led to an earlier protest in Cairo, Egypt. Asked whether the incident was one of terrorism, she said "opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding."
On CNN's "State of the Union," Rice described it as a "horrific incident where some mob was hijacked ultimately by a handful of extremists." Rice appeared on other programs and made similar comments.
The de-classified talking points which Rice and others used did not include references to the attacks being organized terrorism. The spokesman for the director of National Intelligence said the talking points were not modified by any agency outside of the intelligence community.
Ayotte, McCain, and Graham have said they would raise objections to Rice's nomination should she be advanced to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but would consider additional information before casting a vote. Clinton has said she is not interested in serving out a second Obama term, but will stay in office until a successor is ready to be installed.
Rice has not been nominated for the spot but is suspected to top the list of possible candidates.
Ayotte told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in her Tuesday interview that she is "digesting" Rice's comments in the meeting but remains "very concerned." Should Rice be advanced, Ayotte added she would "hold the nomination until we get a full and complete picture of what happened here and some of those questions have been answered today."
President Barack Obama defended Rice at a post-election news conference, calling the senators' criticism of Rice "outrageous," adding that if they "and others want to go after someone they should go after me."
After Ayotte, McCain, and Graham said troubling questions remain, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, "there are no unanswered questions about Ambassador Rice's appearance on Sunday shows and the talking points that she used for those appearances that were provided by the intelligence community."
"The focus on -- some might say obsession on -- comments made on Sunday shows seems to me and to many to be misplaced," Carney said to reporters.
Ayotte responded in her CNN interview, "That's actually one of the most troubling things that I've heard, that there are no unanswered questions."
"Let's put this in the bigger picture: there are huge unanswered questions," about the consulate's security and preparation, the U.S. response, and Rice's remarks.