Since her time as a national security adviser and former UN ambassador during the Obama administration, Susan Rice had largely been out of the limelight until she was recently thrust into the snowballing White House surveillance controversy.
Rice reportedly attempted on numerous occasions to uncover the identities of President Donald Trump’s associates caught on tape incidentally during intelligence surveillance. The report quickly re-opened an unsubstantiated debate on whether the Obama administration previously ordered wiretaps on Trump’s phones.
Rice defended her actions Tuesday, telling MSNBC that her requests were “absolutely not for any political purposes, to spy, or anything.”
“There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a US person was referred to — name not provided, just a US person — and sometimes in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out, or request the information as to who the US official was,” Rice said.
“The notion that some people are trying to suggest, is that by asking for the identity of a person is leaking it, is unequivocally false,” Rice added. “There is no connection between unmasking and leaking.”
It’s not the first time Rice has found herself at the center of a political controversy. A steadfast fixture through both of Obama’s presidential terms, she served as the US ambassador to the United Nations and later national security adviser from 2013 to 2017.
At one point Rice had a clear trajectory to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in 2013, but withdrew her name from consideration following a public outcry over her role in the handling of the Benghazi attacks.
In the days following the September 11, 2012, attacks on the Benghazi consulate that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Rice became the Obama administration’s point person on the matter. In multiple TV appearances soon after that attack, Rice cited an anti-Islam video that fueled a “spontaneous” mob as the reason for the deaths.
Senior US officials later said that Rice’s comments were based on an intelligence assessment that was eventually updated to reflect a preliminary view that demonstrators were not the culprits. But some Republicans suggested Rice’s initial characterization was fueled by politics during a presidential campaign, and criticism intensified as the explanation of events slowly shifted. The administration eventually raised the possibility that the attack was planned by al Qaeda.
Months after the attack, Rice’s comments in the wake of the attack were used as grist by Senate Republicans who said they could not support her as Clinton’s successor. Obama eventually appointed Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to the role.
Following her appointment as national security adviser, Rice created some waves in a 2014 interview where she appeared to offer pity for accused Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl, who had just been released to the US.
Bergdahl was accused of deserting his unit in 2009. After nearly five years in Taliban captivity, the US exchanged five Taliban prisoners for his release.
Rice told CNN in an interview at the time that Bergdahl served the United States with “honor and distinction.”
“I realize there has been lots of discussion and controversy around this,” Rice said. “But what I was referring to was the fact that this was a young man who volunteered to serve his country in uniform at a time of war. That, in and of itself, is a very honorable thing.”
As details of Bergdahl’s disappearance became public following his release, the Obama administration came under increasing fire for its decision to trade the Taliban prisoners. Rice’s comments attracted criticism from members of the military and Republicans who viewed Bergdahl as a deserter and objected to the trade.
Friend of Albright
Rice’s path began decades ago with the help of family friend Madeleine Albright, the woman who became the first female secretary of state.
While serving under President Bill Clinton, Albright 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 Rice, 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 US diplomat.
Rice, 52, was born in Washington to parents with distinguished careers. Her mother, who passed away this January, was an expert on financing of higher education and served on the board of directors of 11 major US corporations. She was characterized as the trailblazing executive behind Pell Grants.
Her father, Emmett Rice, died in 2011. He was a professor of economics at Cornell University, was a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and flew with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.
Rice, who was valedictorian of her class and a star point guard on the basketball team at the National Cathedral School, exhibited “superior leadership skills” and “left behind a remarkable legacy,” wrote former teacher John Wood who noted Rice’s accomplishments in a Washington Post letter to the editor.
She 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.
After graduation from Oxford, 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, whom 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.
She was promoted in 1995 to become special assistant to Clinton and senior director of African affairs at the White House National Security Council.
In 2008, she was national security and foreign relations adviser for Obama’s first presidential 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 UN is an indispensable — and imperfect — forum.”
At the same time, she has drawn some attention for the way she operates. Insiders say Rice is ambitious and aggressive.
Colum Lynch of the Washington Post and Foreign Policy told CNN that one of her nicknames at the UN Security Council was “The Bulldozer.”
“I think that everyone has complicated feelings about her,” Lynch said.
He characterized her as “very personable, likeable, charming, smart, funny, down to earth” but also someone with sharp elbows.
Rice is currently a Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at American University, where she is both mentoring students on careers in national security and working on her next book.