In the month since Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi, I've given the White House the benefit of the doubt when it comes to explaining to the American people what really happened.
That's because raw intelligence is often conflicting, and even formal reports and cables avoid hard and fast conclusions. Intelligence scholar and former State Department analyst Jennifer Sims likes to say that the goal of the intelligence community is to add value to the policies set out by the president.
At the same time, the intelligence community ought to speak truth to power — it did so, though not unanimously, before the Iraq war, when several groups of analysts found the Iraqi WMD evidence lacking.
But here's my problem. And it is a gnawing one. According to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Michael Rogers, he and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice were briefed at roughly the same time and given roughly the same information. So here is what Rice said, the Sunday after the attack:
The key assertions here are that a "spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi" and that "heavy weapons are…readily available" (and this organically became part of that spontaneous attack, and that "extremist elements, individuals," joined the mob-with-the-big-guns.)
Rogers concluded from the same intelligence that the attack was pre-planned and did not extend from a protest at the scene of the consulate in Benghazi.
Let's for the moment assume that both Rice and Rogers were honest in their interpretations of the intelligence.
What explanation could their be for the disparate conclusions?
One: Maybe the administration wanted to protect sources and methods. That is, we don't exactly know HOW the intelligence community concluded that the attacks were pre-planned. If the U.S. had, say, a sensitive signals intelligence operation on the ground and was monitoring militant radio chatter and/or telephones and e-mails, that capacity is one that the U.S. would want to preserve. In that instance, remarks cleared for public release — unclassified talking points based on the classified intelligence — would be vague about the degree of certainty the U.S. had about the cause of a particular action.
In an intelligence report, here is what that might look like:
Now — if you're the bad guy who planned the attacks, and the U.S. concludes within days that the attacks were "pre-planned" and announces it, you might change your communications protocols.
After all, Rice DID admit that "extremist" elements joined the "spontaneous" mob scene. And "heavy weapons" were readily available. In fact, the CIA's team in Benghazi was there precisely to pulse up counter-proliferation efforts, and the house that three of the Americans escaped to was managed by that counter-proliferation team.
But the State Department knew within days of the attacks that
The consulate was stormed without warning. There was no visual evidence of any protest beforehand.
There was no evidence AFTER the storming of the consulate that any protest formed.
In other words, in Tripoli, there were protests. In Benghazi, the U.S. consulate was attacked without warning. There were no protests.
To be extra charitable to Amb. Rice, let's assume that the intelligence about "premeditation" was NOT derived from an "INT" source — but that the analysts who prepared the report made inferences about premeditation based on circumstantial evidence. For example, an analyst might well write the following sentence:
Based on the weapons used in the attack, the speed of the entry into the consulate grounds, the number of men involved, and their knowledge of the layout, the probability is high that this element had been performing reconnaissance and preparing for the attack well before it occurred.
One that further infer that the perpetrators used the pretext of the protests in Tripoli to strike. But since attacks don't just happen, it is probably true that this team was ready to attack in advance of the inciting moment.
Rogers could read that and say quite correctly that it appears as if the attack was premeditated.
And Rice could say, I guess, that the intelligence community has no direct evidence that the attack was premeditated.
It is further possible that the first few reports briefed to policy makers included an error — maybe an analyst made the same mistake that the media did, which was to conflate the protests in Tripoli with the situation in Benghazi. In the crucible, under the gun to brief top-level politician officials, these mistakes happen. And that's OK — intelligence evolves over time and mistakes like these are subject to scrutiny and generally wash out of final reports. But when there is a time crunch, anyone can make dumb errors.
Congress is responsible for this as much as any other agent; the demand for briefings immediately is high, and, significantly, the demand for briefings that include releasable information requires the intelligence community to write for the public as much as they write for policy-makers. Everyone goes on TV these days, including the chair of the House intelligence committee. Now, I happen to think that it is a good thing that Rep. Rogers is willing to discuss intelligence on television. I've interviewed him a few times, and found him to be candid and honest, and he is a genuine subject-matter expert. But intelligence is still not generated for public consumption.
Maybe Rogers ought to have waited awhile.
Maybe Rice ought to have waited awhile, too.
But the public demands an explanation. And sometimes, that means that the intelligence process will be compromised.
Now, it is possible, but not likely, that the CIA or DIA or NSA has concrete information NOW that the attack's origin IS less clear than they thought. And it is possible that, because of the source or method, that piece of intelligence has only been conveyed to top-level executive branch policy makers.
One final possibility: Perhaps Rice and Rogers were given different briefings. Perhaps, by the time Rogers had gotten his briefing, the CIA had already washed the bad intel out. But I doubt it. Rice would almost certainly have asked the State Department's intel shop for the latest assessment before she went on the air. Maybe Rice saw something like my fake Top Secret/SCI line about an intercept and Rogers didn't — except that maybe the intercept suggested the militants were surprised by the attack.
Now let's be uncharitable to Amb. Rice. Let's suppose that she was under pressure to de-emphasize the pre-planned nature of the attacks. Why would this be?
1. If the anti-Muslim film was the major cause of the attack and al Qaeda wasn't, then maybe Americans wouldn't conclude that al Qaeda was still a major factor in Libya. After all, Obama's brags about decimating al Qaeda are central in his campaign.
2. Maybe the administration wanted to keep secret the fact of its large CIA presence in the region, some members of which were dedicated to finding militants who were affiliated with al Qaeda in the Maghreb. It is certainly the case that the CIA might itself ask the administration to downplay this element, at least initially.
3. Perhaps the Obama administration wanted to deflect attention away from its own meddling in the region, itself the source of much consternation, and blame the attack entirely on the film, which would be easier for them to spin to the public.
Motive 1 doesn't work for me. If al Qaeda or other terrorist groups were behind the attack and the intelligence community knew it, we would know it, and fairly quickly, because rarely are such broad analytical conclusions drawn about major world events and not somehow transmitted to the press. Also, the White House wouldn't get away with this lie. They would be hammered for it mercilessly as soon as it was discovered. The National Security Staff is not that stupid. Really. They're not.
Motive 3 doesn't work either; the response of Libya after the attack and the spontaneous pro-America demonstrations suggest that Libyan public opinion is not virulently anti-American.
Motive 2 is harder to dismiss, because the CIA and the intelligence community have real equities in maintaining a presence in Benghazi and probably do a lot of things that we don't know about, and that Mike Rogers hasn't been briefed about.
So what the hell happened?
Even today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. doesn't have a complete picture of the attack. I suppose she is under some pressure to tidy up the State Department's decision to throw one of their own (Amb. Rice) under a big bus last week, and to deflect attention from Vice President Biden's assertion (true, technically) that the White House itself wasn't briefed about requests for additional security in Benghazi. But Clinton has no incentive to lie. As we've seen, the intelligence community simply will not let policy makers lie about intelligence in a way that unfairly tars the constituent members of the community. They have informal mechanisms of correcting public opinion and they use them.
I'm less concerned about this wilderness of mirrors than about the security challenges faced by diplomats, and I would hope that both Congress and the administration spend more time about THAT subject than the one I've just written about.
Still, the facts demand a better explanation. I'm all ears.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- Why you should really take a nap this afternoon, according to science
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The big, gaping hole in the liberal policy arsenal
- The weird obsession that's ruining the GOP
- Comic-Con 2014: Everything we learned about Avengers 2, Batman v. Superman, and more
- Are there too many good shows on television?
- The forgotten victims of the war in Ukraine
Subscribe to the Week