Susan Rice at center of political storm over Benghazi

WASHINGTON (CNN) — At one time, Susan Rice seemed to be on a trajectory that would take her to the secretary of state’s office in President Barack Obama’s second term.

But the confusing timeline that she and the Obama administration have offered around the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, might have altered that political course, begun years ago with the help of a powerful family friend.

Madeleine Albright, while serving as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, recommended that he tap Rice for a high-level State Department post on African affairs in the late 1990s.

Albright had previously served with Rice’s mother, Lois, on a school board in Washington and watched Rice grow up with her own daughters.

“If I were to characterize her, whether it’s playing basketball or anything else, she’s fearless,” Albright said about Rice in a Washington Post interview during her time as the top U.S. diplomat.

Rice was born in Washington in 1974 to parents with distinguished careers. Her mother, who currently serves as a guest lecturer at the Brookings Institution and is an expert on financing of higher education, served on the board of directors of 11 major U.S. corporations.

Her father, Emmett Rice, who died in 2011, was a professor of economics at Cornell University, a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and flew with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.

Susan Rice told the Washington Post after her father’s death that he instilled in her “a strong sense of personal and social responsibility” that guided her career decisions.

“He believed mightily in the power of the individual to determine his or her own destiny,” she said.

And by all accounts, Rice determined her own destiny.

Replying to a November 18 opinion piece by Post columnist Dana Milbank that questioned her qualifications to become secretary of state, one of Rice’s former teachers at the National Cathedral School said she “exhibited superior leadership skills” in her role as head of school government.

Rice, who was valedictorian of her class and a star point guard on the basketball team, “left behind a remarkable legacy,” including a revised honor code still used at the school, the teacher, John Wood, wrote.

Rice earned Phi Beta Kappa honors at Stanford University, where she earned her bachelors degree in history and won a Rhodes Scholarship to study international relations at Oxford University in 1986.

Rice’s work at Oxford, where she earned her masters and later a doctorate in international relations, earned the Chatham House-British International Studies Association Prize for the top doctoral dissertation in the United Kingdom in international relations.

After graduation, Rice headed to McKinsey & Company in Toronto where she worked as an international management consultant. In 1992, she married Ian Cameron, a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who she had met at Stanford.

In 1993, Rice returned to Washington to take a position with the National Security Council as director of international organizations and peacekeeping. A year later, she toured war-torn Rwanda after the genocide campaign there killed more than 800,000 people in 100 days.

She told journalist Samantha Power that if she ever faced such a crisis again that she would come down on the side of taking action, unlike the course the Clinton administration and the rest of the world took at the time.

Rice was promoted in 1995 to become special assistant to the president and senior director of African affairs at the White House National Security Council.

She became a senior fellow in 2002 at Brookings, where she specialized in the study of U.S. foreign relations, and was national security and foreign relations adviser for Obama’s 2008 campaign.

In nominating her to the ambassador’s post, Obama called Rice “a close and trusted adviser” and said she “shares my belief that the U.N. is an indispensable — and imperfect — forum. She will carry the message that our commitment to multilateral action must be coupled with a commitment to reform. We need the U.N. to be more effective as a venue for collective action — against terror and proliferation; climate change and genocide; poverty and disease.”

In the days following the September 11 attacks on the Benghazi consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Rice became the administration’s point person on the matter. In multiple TV appearances after that attack, Rice cited a hateful video that fueled a spontaneous mob attack as the reason for the deaths.

Senior U.S. officials have said that Rice’s comments were based on an intelligence assessment that was later updated to reflect a preliminary view that demonstrators were not the culprits.

The most strident Republicans suggested the characterization of the attack as a mob gone awry might have been the basis for a cover-up during a ferocious political campaign.

Criticism intensified as the explanation of events slowly shifted with the administration eventually raising the possibility that the attack was planned by al Qaeda.

Some leading Senate Republicans said they could not support Rice if Obama nominated her to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. While Obama has not indicated who he might appoint, White House sources have said that Rice is a top candidate.

Rice did little to quell criticism of her on Tuesday following a meeting with the toughest critics over Benghanzi – Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

The session, called by Rice to answer questions about her comments, ended up with the lawmakers saying they were “significantly troubled” by many of her answers.

Graham said Rice’s comments amounted to a “statement disconnected from reality” and that his concerns about Rice “are greater today than they were before.”

McCain said the “information that she gave the American people was incorrect.”

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