Since the Senate is solely responsible for the confirmation of Cabinet officers, it's not often that members of the House of Representatives jump into a debate about the nomination of a secretary of state - particularly before there has been a nomination. That's one of the reasons a letter sent to President Obama this week by 97 House Republicans, challenging his potential choice of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for the State Department job, is remarkable.
Another is blatant disregard of established facts. Drawn up by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., the letter alleges that "Ambassador Rice is widely viewed as having either willfully or incompetently misled the American public" about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
But as congressional testimony has established, Rice's comments on several Sunday television talk shows on Sept. 16 were based on talking points drawn up by the intelligence community. She was acting as an administration spokeswoman; there was nothing either incompetent or deliberately misleading about the way she presented the information she was given.
Though the Benghazi attack involved clear failures of U.S. security, Republicans have concentrated on a dubious subsidiary issue: the alleged failure of the administration to publicly recognize quickly enough that the incident was "a terrorist attack."
In fact, Obama has acknowledged that "the information may not have always been right the first time." But if there was a White House conspiracy to cover up the truth, Republicans have yet to produce any evidence of it - much less a connection to Rice, who had no involvement with the Benghazi attack other than those television appearances.
Nor was her account of what happened as far off the mark as Republicans claim. Though investigations are not complete, what has emerged so far suggests that the attack was staged by local jihadists, not ordered by the al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan. Officials believe that it was inspired in part by demonstrations that took place that day in Cairo. That is not so far from Rice's explanation that "this began as a spontaneous . . . response to what transpired in Cairo."
Republicans claim that Rice "propagated a falsehood" that the attacks were connected to an anti-Islam YouTube video. How then to explain the contemporaneous reports from Western news organizations quoting people at the burning consulate saying that they were angry about the video?
The oddity of the Republican response to what happened in Benghazi is partly this focus on half-baked conspiracy theories rather than on the real evidence of failures by the State Department, Pentagon and CIA in protecting the Benghazi mission. What's even stranger is the singling out of Rice, a Rhodes scholar and seasoned policymaker who, whatever her failings, is no one's fool.
Could it be, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus are charging, that the signatories of the letter are targeting Rice because she is an African American woman? The signatories deny that, and we can't know their hearts. What we do know is that more than 80 of the signatories are white males, and nearly half are from states of the former Confederacy.
You'd think that before launching their broadside, members of Congress would have taken care not to propagate any falsehoods of their own.