WASHINGTON -- Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence rushed to defend United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice on Friday, saying she shouldn't be "pilloried" by Republicans, after the committee had heard from resigned CIA Director David Petraeus.
Several top Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), have slammed Rice for remarks she gave on Sunday TV shows in mid-September that seemed to downplay terrorist connections to the attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans.
Republicans even accused her and President Barack Obama of lying about the situation and declared she was unfit to be named secretary of state -- a promotion many have speculated Obama would like to make.
But after Petraeus addressed the Intelligence Committee in a closed session, Democrats called on the GOP to stop, saying the criticism of Rice amounted to "character assassination."
"What Susan Rice did was use talking points put out originally by the CIA, signed off by the intelligence community," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee chairwoman. "Those talking points, as I understand it, were requested by the House [Intelligence] Committee."
"The key is that they were unclassified talking points at a very early stage," Feinstein said. "I don't think she should be pilloried for this."
Continuing GOP criticism of Rice is making for "a very divisive fight," Feinstein added, although she seemed to acknowledge that the information Rice relayed back in September was not very good.
"We have seen bad intelligence before, and it all surrounded our going into Iraq, and a lot of people were killed based on bad intelligence," Feinstein said. "I don't think that's fair game. I think mistakes get made. You don't pillory the person and select Ambassador Rice because she used an unclassified talking point. To say that she is unqualified to be secretary of state, I think, is a mistake. The way it keeps going is almost as if the intent is to assassinate her character."
"Criticisms of her are completely unwarranted," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who also sits on the Intelligence Committee. "She did entirely the responsible thing in answering questions based on what was unclassified and agreed to by the entire intelligence community at the moment that she used those talking points. That is critically important to understand."
McCain, who also attended the Petraeus briefing, said nothing in his remarks afterward about Rice or his demand for an investigation by a new select panel. Instead, he praised Petraeus for a comprehensive briefing and also suggested the intelligence had not been good.
"It was important," McCain said of the briefing. "It added to our ability to make judgments about what is clearly a failure of intelligence."
Republican committee members still seemed concerned about the information Rice had relayed, even if they weren't as focused on her.
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) suggested there remain unresolved issues about whether there was "political influence related to this."
The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), said the problem was not that Rice used the talking points -- which he called "correct" -- but the rest of what she said.
"She went beyond that," Chambliss argued. "She even mentioned that under the leadership of Barack Obama, we had decimated al Qaeda. Well, she knew at that point in time that al Qaeda was very likely responsible in part or in whole for the death of Ambassador Stevens."
But he and other Republicans also said that the important issues to focus on were the intelligence failures, the ability of the terrorists to penetrate the U.S. compound and the specific identities of the attackers.
"It's delving into more depth on issues like that that we've got to find out about," said Chambliss.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.