By Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on Tuesday conceded that an early account she gave about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, was partly inaccurate, but her admission failed to win over Republican senators who accused her of misleading the public.
Rice met for about an hour behind closed doors at the U.S. Capitol with Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, who have threatened to block her nomination if President Barack Obama chooses her for secretary of state or another top post in his second-term Cabinet.
They have criticized her for initial comments after the September 11 attack in Benghazi that suggested it was a spontaneous event arising from protests over an anti-Islam film rather than a premeditated attack.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in the attack on the Benghazi mission and a nearby CIA annex. Intelligence officials later said the attack was possibly tied to al Qaeda affiliates.
"We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got, and some that we didn't get, concerning evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate," McCain told reporters after the meeting.
"It is clear that the information that she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video," he said.
"It was not, and there was compelling evidence at the time that that was certainly not the case, including statements by Libyans as well as other Americans who are fully aware that people don't bring mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to spontaneous demonstrations," McCain said.
Graham said he would move to block the nomination of "anybody" who was linked to the Benghazi events.
Republicans have argued that the Obama administration tried to play down the terrorist angle in its initial comments to avoid undermining the president's claims of success in fighting al Qaeda in the run-up to the November 6 election.
Rice, who was accompanied to the meeting by acting CIA Director Michael Morell, later issued a statement.
"We explained that the talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi," she said in the statement.
"While, we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved," she said.
"We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the Administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process."
TEMPEST OVER TALKING POINTS
Rice's controversial Benghazi statements were based on a set of unclassified talking points prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies for members of Congress.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the questions about Rice's appearance on the talk shows and the talking points she used had been answered. "The focus on - some might say obsession on - comments made on Sunday shows seems to me and to many to be misplaced," he said.
But Republican senators said the meeting with Rice and Morell left them with more concerns than before. In a statement McCain, Graham and Ayotte said there was now more confusion about who had made changes in the talking points before they were given to Rice.
Morell told the senators during the meeting that the FBI had removed references to al Qaeda from the talking points "and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation" of the attack on the U.S. mission, the statement by McCain, Graham and Ayotte said.
"However, at approximately 4:00 this afternoon, CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaeda references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why," the statement said.
The initial draft of the talking points written by the CIA referred to "attacks" carried out by "extremists with ties to al Qaeda." However by the time Rice received them, "attacks" had changed to "demonstrations" and "with ties to al Qaeda" had been deleted, multiple U.S. sources have said.
A U.S. intelligence official said the CIA changed the reference to al Qaeda for "several valid intelligence and investigatory reasons."
Among the reasons cited were that "the information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources, and could not be corroborated at the unclassified level; the links were tenuous and therefore it made sense to be cautious before naming perpetrators; finally, no one wanted to prejudice a criminal investigation in its earliest stages."
U.S. intelligence officials have denied that there was any intent to misinform. The White House has denied making the edits in the talking points, and had no further comment on the subject after the meeting.
'WAY TOO EARLY TO TELL'
Obama has defended Rice and said if senators have a problem with the administration's handling of Benghazi they should "go after me" rather than try to "besmirch her reputation."
Obama has also said if he believed Rice was the right person for a job in his administration, he would not hesitate to nominate her, throwing down the gauntlet to Republicans.
The White House has not given a time frame for when the president might nominate a replacement for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton's aides have said she plans to step down around the inauguration, which is in late January, and would like to stay until her successor is confirmed.
Rice has some defenders on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said Tuesday he was shocked that Republican attacks on Rice were continuing, calling them "outrageous and unmoored from facts and reality."
Rice met in the afternoon with Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Independent who is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and she will meet on Wednesday with the panel's top Republican, Senator Susan Collins.
Collins said it was "way too early to tell" if Rice could attract the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome any procedural obstacles if she is nominated, but that Rice had erred in being the administration's voice on Benghazi if she was interested in becoming secretary of state.
"The secretary of state is supposed to be above politics, and she played a very political role by appearing at the height of the political campaign, on those shows," Collins said.
But Lieberman, after meeting Rice, said she had done nothing to disqualify herself for some other position in government.
"I specifically asked her whether at any point prior to going on those Sunday morning television shows she was briefed or urged to say certain things by anybody in the White House related to the campaign or political operations. She said 'no.'"
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Jackie Frank, Todd Eastham and Vicki Allen)