WASHINGTON — Sen. Susan Collins said she remains troubled about Susan Rice’s past statements about attacks on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, following a one-on-one discussion Wednesday with the United Nations ambassador.

Collins, a moderate Republican, said she had “many questions that remained unanswered” despite a more than hour-long meeting with Rice Wednesday morning.

“I continue to be troubled that the U.N. ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign by agreeing to go on the Sunday shows to present the administration’s position,” Collins told reporters immediately after the meeting.

Collins said it would be “premature” of her to take a position on whether Rice should succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. But, in another sign of the challenges facing the White House, Collins clearly indicated reservations with the nomination reportedly being weighed by the Obama administration.

“I will need to have additional information before I could support her nomination,” Collins said. “She has not been (nominated) yet. Our Homeland Security Committee investigation is ongoing. There are many different players in this and there’s much left to be learned.”

Rice is under intense scrutiny for statements in September suggesting that the Benghazi attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were protests that spun out of control rather than pre-planned assaults by militant groups.

Collins is the latest Republican to criticize Rice over the statements she made five days after the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi.

Collins’ voice may carry more weight than most, however, and her criticism made national news Wednesday. A bank of television cameras and reporters waited for her to emerge from the closed-door meeting with Rice.

She is the senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And, as a moderate Republican, Collins is viewed as a potential key vote toward the 60 needed for a Rice nomination to move forward in the Senate.

Collins also was supportive of Rice, whose mother grew up in Portland, Maine, when Rice was nominated for U.N. Ambaassador in 2008.

“I knew her to be an intelligent and talented person,” Collins told CNN Wednesday. Collins said she still feels that way, but “I am concerned that Susan Rice’s credibility may have been damaged.”

On Tuesday, Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said they emerged from a meeting with Rice with more concerns. Unlike Collins, the three senators have indicated that they might block Rice’s anticipated nomination as secretary of state.

The Obama administration has defended Rice by insisting she was simply using talking points provided by the intelligence community. The White House and some congressional Democrats have suggested that partisan politics may be behind the attacks on Rice.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney once again referred Wednesday to an “obsessive focus” on Rice’s statements, which he said were immaterial to the ongoing investigations into who carried out the attacks and lessons that can be learned from them.

“As I think the president has said, and I and others have said, it’s a shame to create a sideshow that seems I think very clearly to be very political out of something that really has no bearing on what happened in Benghazi,” Carney said at a press briefing, according to a transcript.

The president, meanwhile, praised Rice’s service at the United Nations and led a round of applause for her during a Cabinet meeting that she attended.

“Susan Rice is extraordinary,” Obama said, according to the transcript. “I couldn’t be prouder of the job that she’s done as the (ambassador).”

As the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, Collins could have considerable influence as the panel continues to investigate the events surrounding the Benghazi attacks. Collins and committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., have pledged to conduct a fair bipartisan investigation into the incident. But the largely Republican criticism of Rice and the Democratic response underscores the potential for political tensions over Benghazi.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Tuesday described the attacks on Rice by some Republicans as “outrageous and utterly unmoored from facts and reality.”

In another possible signal to the Obama administration concerning Rice, Collins said that she believes the other rumored top contender for the job — Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts — would be an “excellent appointment” and would face a much easier approval process in the Senate.

Collins said she asked Rice about why she did not mention in the interviews the fact that some on-the-ground sources in Libya believed the attacks were premeditated assaults by terrorist groups, not protesters.

“I don’t understand why she did not at least qualify her response,” Collins said.

On Wednesday, Collins also appeared to broaden her queries beyond Benghazi by linking the incident — and Rice — to terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. Rice was assistant secretary for African affairs in the State Department at the time of the 1998 bombings that killed 12 Americans and wounded thousands of local residents.

As in Benghazi, the U.S. ambassador requested additional security but was turned down by the State Department. Collins said Rice told her she was not directly involved in that decision but the senator appeared to press the connection nonetheless.

“Surely, given her position as assistant secretary of African affairs, she had to be aware of the general threat assessments and of the ambassador’s repeated requests for more security,” Collins said.

In a statement released after Tuesday’s meetings with senators, Rice acknowledged that her statements were wrong but said the situation was still developing at the time.

“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,” Rice said.

“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.”

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
kmiller@mainetoday.com