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Intel: More questions about Benghazi

October 19, 2012

As if this week’s Presidential debate kerfuffle about Libya weren’t enough – thanks, Candy, for getting the facts wrong on-air – now the AP is reporting that DC actually got information from U.S. intelligence in-country, just 24 hours after the infamous Benghazi attack, which calls into question the Administration’s narrative.

In the hours after the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi which claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, our intelligence apparatus was doing what it’s supposed to do. Late on 12 September, only 24 hours after the attack, the CIA’s Chief of Station (COS) in Libya sent a detailed report back to Langley, based on interviews with eyewitnesses, which concluded that “militants launched the violence, using the pretext of demonstrations against U.S. facilities in Egypt against the film to cover their intent.” This cable would have been in the hands of CIA staffers and analysts within hours and, given the news value of what had just happened in Benghazi, it’s difficult to believe the COS’s assessment wasn’t given a good deal of weight. After all, the whole point of having a COS is that Langley, and by extension the whole U.S. Government up to the President, has a single go-to point for intelligence issues in that country.

Yet, little more than two days later, the talking points on the Benghazi tragedy sent by CIA to Congress asserted that “demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault.”

Questions abound here. Was the COS’s take simply wrong? That can happen, people sometimes do screw up. Not to mention that not all of our COS choices in North Africa recently have been stellar. Yet, having written similar cables myself, I find it difficult to believe that the Station – which surely understood the gravity of the debacle which had just gone down – would fire back a cable filled with sketchy misinformation, since Big People – likely Director Petraeus and possibly President Obama himself – would be reading the first reports from our eyes on the ground, given the awfulness of what had just happened. Plus I can’t really see how it was in the COS’s interest to propagate a false message which, to be clear, doesn’t exactly look fabulous on the Station, since someone clearly dropped the ball here. Four dead, one of them an ambassador, doesn’t really help anybody’s PAR come annual review season.

I won’t comment further on the COS’s cable, since I haven’t seen it and, despite some excellent, multi-source reportage from the AP here, neither have they. It should be noted that DC is swirling with plausible rumors that there is better and much more sensitive intelligence out there (i.e. SIGINT) which is very damning for the Administration narrative on Benghazi … but I haven’t seen that either so I’ll leave that there without further comment.

Then there is the curious commentary of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chair of the Senate’s intelligence committee (the SSCI – you guessed it, pronounced “sissy” among the cognoscenti), who the other day during a TV interview discussed the Intelligence Community’s reaction to Benghazi: “I think what happened was the director of national intelligence, which we call the DNI, who is a very good individual … Gen. Jim Clapper, put out some speaking points on the initial intelligence assessment … I think that was possibly a mistake.”

Translation: Clapper screwed the pooch. Before anyone points partisan fingers at Sen. Feinstein, let it be said that, despite the fact that she was for a decade the mayor of San Francisco, she has a lot of fans across the aisle and all over the IC for her savvy understanding of intelligence issues. Sen. Feinstein isn’t prone to gaffes when the camera is rolling, and she may have been too kind to Gen. Clapper who – not to put too fine a point on it – as a well-honed reputation in the IC for ignoring views he doesn’t like or approve of.

Did that include our COS in Libya? Time will tell here – this will be something historians should have a field day with, decades hence, when the good stuff gets declassified and released – but even today we can say that, thanks to the AP’s reportage, more awkward questions have popped up about the Benghazi tragedy which need to be answered.

Ball to you, Mitt …

[Note: Per always, the opinions here are those of me, myself, and I, and surely not those of the Naval War College, the Department of Defense, nor my former employers in the Intelligence Community.]

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8 Comments
  1. Tom Nichols permalink

    John – Part of what amazes me here is that anyone referenced DNI, an office that no one seems to listen to. (I referenced his Senate testimony on nukes in my next book, which left the Senators scratching their heads and trying to get clarification.) And while I think that there’s truth in the defense that no one at the senior level sees the day-to-day cable traffic — I also can’t imagine that’s true about traffic from a place where we just fought a war with NATO and deposed a long-time U.S. enemy. Surely, that stuff goes right to the NSC…doesn’t it?

    None of the possible explanations are…appealing. 😦

    • Not appealing at all, none of them.

      DNI is frankly an also-ran most days of the week, but obviously everybody in the IC understood the gravity of the Benghazi tragedy and the importance of getting the facts right, fast. Top people don’t normally read cable traffic – they have full-time jobs already, and there are plenty of GS-12s to slog through cables – but 11 Sep 12 was not a normal day.

      As for the NSC and its dysfunction in this White House, I cannot improve upon Rosa Brooks’s take today in FP (which explains much):

      http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/10/18/the_case_for_intervention

      This paints a devastating picture which jibes with my second-hand knowledge. It went down so well (I suppose it was far too true for anyone to stomach on a Friday) that Ms Brooks has already issued an apology of sorts:

      http://byothermeans.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/10/19/a_washington_apology

      Special ….

  2. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse permalink

    It seems clear to me that this was simply a struggle between the Clintons and the Administration. The ambasador and those ex-Seals and the fourth person were simply colateral damage.

    Factional infighting.

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