Ayotte joins Senate chorus asking for answers on Benghazi
At a joint news conference Wednesday with McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Ayotte said, "There is no more important responsibility than members of Congress having to get to the bottom of it.
"And frankly, where we are right now, we have more questions than answers and the answers that we have gotten, because it has been given in a disjointed fashion from the administration, the answers we have received have raised more questions," Ayotte said.
The three Republican senators also said that if United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice were nominated to serve as secretary of state, they would block her nomination because of how she explained the roots of the Sept. 11 attack.
During a news conference later in the day, President Barack Obama strongly defended Rice. Bristling with indignation, Obama said Rice has "done exemplary work" with "skill, professionalism and toughness and grace."
He then made an almost personal challenge to McCain, Graham and Ayotte.
"If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said. "For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi ... to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
Obama said he hasn't made any final decisions on who to nominate to Cabinet posts in his second term, but said that he would not hesitate to nominate Rice even in the face of Republican opposition.
Graham responded to Obama's comments by e-mail just as the news conference concluded. "Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi," Graham said in a statement. "I think you failed as commander in chief before, during, and after the attack."
Obama is reportedly considering Rice to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as part of a series of moves that might also send Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., to lead the Pentagon. Rice, 47, served as an adviser to Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and was later tapped to represent the United States at U.N. headquarters in New York. Rice appeared on all five major-network Sunday morning political talk shows less than a week after the Benghazi attack.
During those interviews, Rice said that the attack grew out of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video. But reports from the ground and statements by administration officials since Rice's comments have varied
Graham was especially critical of Rice on Wednesday and said her comments on the shows were "so disconnected to reality, I don't trust her. And the reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better, and if she didn't know better, she shouldn't be the voice of America. Somebody has got to start paying a price around this place."
Ayotte agreed: "You don't end up on every single major Sunday show without affirmatively putting yourself out there or wanting to carry forward a message on behalf of the administration. I think that there's a certain responsibility with the current position that she has to ask proper questions about what we did and didn't know at that point before she affirmatively puts herself out there on every major network to communicate to the American people."
The senators said they want a special joint committee to investigate the attack and hear testimony from the administration's top national security officials, including former CIA director David Petraeus, because separate ongoing investigations by the Senate's armed services, foreign relations and intelligence committees will only yield partial information.
Late Wednesday, the House intelligence committee announced Petraeus would testify on Friday behind closed doors about the attack.
"The three committees will not be able to hear what the other groups are saying," Graham said. "I'd like to ask Gen. Petraeus some questions, and I'm sure there are some people on the [Intelligence Committee] that would like to hear what the Department of Defense has to say about their handling of the Benghazi attack. And when it comes to the State Department, all of us would like to know, why were there so many requests for additional security denied."
Ayotte said: "We owe it to the American people to make sure that we understand exactly what happened, what went wrong, why couldn't the greatest military in the world respond when an attack occurred almost over a seven-hour period, and why were there, at a minimum, misstatements made, and certainly misimpressions given to the American people about the nature of this attack in the immediate explanations provided by the administration in the two weeks following the attack."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday that he would not bring the senators' resolution up for a vote. And Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also said Wednesday that she wouldn't support establishing a select committee: "We're doing our inquiry; that's already under way."
In his remarks, Obama also denied that the military or CIA held back any assets or effort in attempts to rescue the Americans under attack. "My orders to my national security team were to do whatever we need to do to make sure they are safe," Obama said.
Ed O'Keefe and Greg Miller of The Washington Post contributed to this report.
VIDEO: Sen. Ayotte discusses the attacks and the search for answers on Fox News: