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What Happened in Benghazi

Though I am in no way a fan of President Obama’s foreign and security policies, the flailing that the Republican Party is engaging in at the moment to demonstrate some kind of cover-up in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack reveals a complete lack of understanding of how intelligence collection and analysis works. David Ignatius explores the subject in an op-ed [1], “CIA documents supported Susan Rice’s description of Benghazi attacks.”

Ignatius observes that intelligence is developed when something happens and that evidence is frequently “fragmentary and conflicting.” While there may be such a thing as incontrovertible facts relating to any incident, that solid information is something that frequently cannot be easily discerned. Ignatius notes that Republicans have been beating Obama over the head most recently with the assertion that there was a CIA Station Chief cable the day after the killing of the ambassador that indicated that the attack had been planned and organized by a militant group. But I would bet that there were at least 15 other reports that went out the same day that provided alternative scenarios. If you intercept a cell phone call in which someone is claiming credit for organizing an attack, is he speaking the truth or is he boasting and trying to take credit for some reason or other? If a source in a militia is claiming that he knows who ordered the attack, does he have an agenda that is driving his claim? All of that has to be sorted out, which takes time and cross checking. At the present time, it does appear that the “Innocence of Muslims” video did play a role in the attack and the contention that it was a fully-orchestrated al-Qaeda event seems unlikely.

I was in Rome Station when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was occupied. The CIA went on full alert worldwide and we followed suit. I rather suspect that every Iranian official or businessman in Italy that we could get our hands on was interviewed three times. The reports went in to Washington, together with thousands of others. While the effort sounds silly in retrospect, I do recall that there were some Iranians in Rome who had significant information on the students who had led the takeover. My point is that intelligence is a complicated process and cherry picking raw intelligence reports relating to a developing situation might well produce whatever you want to find, but it will not necessarily reveal the truth.

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#1 Comment By Chad On October 22, 2012 @ 8:47 am

When your animating principle is everything the other guy does is wrong, you’re inevitably going to end up with some egg on your face.

#2 Comment By tbraton On October 22, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

Aren’t you totally ignoring the testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Lamb to the House Oversight Committee; she testified that she was on the telphone to the Counsulate in Benghazi while the attack was underway so she knew there was no demonstration preceding the attack. So we have a virtual eyewitness account and we have to wait for reports to come in from CIA stations in Rome and Tripoli? Even Newsweek concedes that we knew at the time of the attack that there was demonstration over an anti-Muslim video.
“The State Department, monitoring the phone calls from the consulate’s operations center, knew virtually from the first minutes, as Ubben, Stevens, and Smith were hiding, that the attack on the consulate was no protest gone astray. And when a major CIA outpost nearby came under attack hours later, there was little doubt about that being an operation by well-trained terrorists. But the administration has sought to reveal as little as possible about the CIA presence and operations in Benghazi, not least because when Obama talks about bringing the killers to justice, those are the people who may be asked to do it.”

Maybe it’s time to bring back George Tenet as head of the CIA to proclaim it a “slam dunk” that this was just a peaceful demonstration gone wrong.

#3 Comment By Ken Shelton On October 22, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

Makes sense, but when something bad happens without our knowing in advance isn’t that , by definition, an ‘intelligence failure’ regardless of how difficult it would have been to predict.

#4 Comment By Big Ears On October 22, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

How tactless of you to intrude on the GOP’s Benghazi reverie with the realities of intelligence collection and analysis.

#5 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On October 22, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

Republicans would be better advised to concentrate on the security lapse issue rather than the administration’s reaction to events. Obviously the Obama administration didn’t get it’s story straight regarding events, but the real story is how they failed to protect an obviously vulnerable ambassador.

The ambassador was deeply involved in the regime change that ended with Gaddafi being violated and murdered in the street like a dog. Regime change is a dirty and bloody business. Yet the administration seemed to think that only the “Bad guys” were subject to the violence we and the Europeans set in motion. I can’t help remember Hillary’s cackling over Gaddafi’s demise. Now perhaps she and the other liberal internationalist war nerds know the feeling of losing one of their own.

#6 Comment By James Canning On October 22, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

Are the Republicans that ignorant? Or just pretending to be? Hard to say. Unscrupulous and shameless in their effort to exploit the Benghazi incident, clearly.

#7 Comment By Bill Pearlman On October 22, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

It’s not a question of bad things happening. When Romney gets in bad things will happen. It’s the idea that Obama blamed this on a bunch of frustrated movie critics and kept to that until he no longer could.

#8 Comment By Wesley On October 22, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

Yes, anybody can cherry pick raw intelligence reports, including the Obama administration. Evidence gleaned from intelligence is indeed “frequently fragmentary and conflicting,” and there may very well have been 16 reports that day from the CIA Station Chief in Libya. But the Obama administration had choices on what intelligence to believe, and they chose those intelligence reports that fit their preferred narrative. The Obama administration may not have been sure which intelligence reports were the most accurate, but they went ahead anyway and emphasized those reports that pointed toward a protest against the anti-Islam video as opposed to those intelligence reports that pointed toward a planned attack by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.

The CIA documents that Ignatius writes about are not some top secret classified reports; they are “talking points” that have been known about for weeks. The term “talking points” does’t sound like something that the CIA would release, but rather something that would come from the White House. The contents of the “talking points” may indeed have come from the CIA, but I have my suspicions that the “talking points” themselves were prepared by the National Security Council or somebody else in the White House. But of course saying that the talking points came from the CIA sounds better than saying that they came from the White House.

The only role that the anti-Islam video may have played in the attack on the consulate is that the attackers in Benghazi may have been inspired by the siege of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The attack on the consulate may not have been an event “fully-orchestrated” by al-Qaeda central in Pakistan, but Ayman Zawahiri did call for jihadists to avenge the killing of a top al-Qaeda leader from Libya. Also, Ansar al-Shariah is known to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magrebh and the leader of Ansar al-Shariah fought with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and was imprisoned for a time in Guantanamo.