Last post on US politics and the Benghazi attack
The attempt to play politics with the murders of four Americans in Benghazi just won't go away. Anyone who buys into the notion that there is some enormous cover-up or political scandal around the public statements from the Obama administration since the attack doesn't understand intelligence collection, the chaos of reports after a tragedy of this magnitude, or the fact that the reality of events like this aren't fully known until months after the fact, if then.
In fact, I consider it unlikely that anyone knows precisely what happened in Benghazi yet, beyond the men who planned and carried out the Sept. 11 assault on the US consulate there that ended in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens, diplomatic guards and former Seals Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and embassy information management officer Sean Smith.
The outlines of what happened are now understood. An assault was planned and carried out by a Libyan militia, almost certainly one with Islamist political leanings. The publicly identified culprit has been a group called "Ansar al-Sharia," but public evidence has as yet been scant. And within the Benghazi context of multiple militias with fluid and changing memberships and identities, saying "Ansar al-Sharia did it" is not as informational as it might seen. A sub-set of Ansar al-Sharia members? A group of men, many of whom, but not all, worked with the militia in the past? Some other group eager to pin the blame on the militia? All are possibilities. Finally "Ansar al-Sharia" ("Helpers of Islamic Law") is a popular moniker in jihadi circles.
Did the Obama administration's early belief, based on reporting from the ground, that the attack was somehow tied in to anger over an anti-Islam YouTube video, damage efforts to find the killers? No. Sorry Rep. Rogers. An FBI team was dispatched quickly to Libya to begin coordinating the investigation, and there is zero evidence that resources were misallocated based on the early confusion. Are claims made on Facebook proof of, well, anything? Again, no.
It is a complicated world, and the large US intelligence operation in Benghazi (which was clearly a big part of what the consulate there was doing) was in understandable disarray after the main compound was torched and the US survivors managed to flee to safety after a safe-house prepared on the outskirts of town was also attacked. To demand that the Obama administration, or State Department managers, or the CIA should have had an accurate and complete picture of what went down there within days of the assault is to misunderstand the limits of our abilities and the need to sift through often-conflicting and confusing reports from the field.
Did Obama and his subordinates make mistakes in the aftermath? Undoubtedly. They should have said less, and what they did say should have made it clear that information was still coming in. They should have admitted uncertainty and caution, never mind that uncertainty doesn't play well in the middle of a reelection campaign. Those missteps may have harmed the president politically, and did lead to confusion among the US public at large. But is it relevant to the efforts to find the killers, and to address the security missteps that left the US operation in Benghazi so vulnerable? No.
Joshua Foust wrote a good piece on all this for PBS yesterday that places blame on the Obama people where it appropriately belongs and points out that the so-called political "narrative" in DC is missing the boat. He points out that real damage is being done by the notion that intelligence uncertainty was some kind of crime.
The (intelligence community) is now absorbing the blame for the public misconception about the attack. President Obama was briefed by the CIA each morning for the first week proceeding that the attack was a spontaneous protest. It has since come to light that a CIA cable suggested otherwise immediately after the assault and administration critics have publicly accused the President of concealing information about the attack. Even some administration officials have placed blame on the intelligence community itself for not being clear enough about what happened.
The problem with this after-the-fact treatment of information is that it ignores how difficult solid reporting is to get from complex, high-profile events. Raw intelligence – firsthand accounts, video surveillance, and other forms of data – rarely adds up to a coherent picture straight away. I worked as an analyst in the intelligence community for many years, and more often than not reports are contradictory, misleading, and paradoxical....
But now the partisan knife fight has happened. One side is accusing your boss of hiding what happened, and the other side is saying it’s your fault for not knowing it sooner. How does this change the intelligence process?
It is being said over and over again that the Obama Administration deliberately obfuscated what happened in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Day by day a trickle of old e-mails, partial early reports and developing assessments are hailed as "proof' that something shameful happened and is happening in the US Government, something hidden.
The truth is that early reports and judgments of traumatic, sudden events like this are usually incorrect and need to be developed and "straightened out" with the passage of time and completed investigations.
Complicating the situation in Benghazi was the location there of a CIA base covered as other than that. These people were working on the very problems that eventually resulted in the attack and the deaths. Not surprisingly, the CIA has not been desirous of the revelation of the presence and status of its employees and so the declarations to the press have not been accurate in that regard.
Ari Fleischer, former White House spokesman from President George W. Bush at the time the US decided to go to war with Iraq, goes for a kind of twofer in a tweet today, suggesting that people must either accept that intelligence is a murky business, or that the previous administration should be exonerated for the false prewar claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction "For Bush critics who say he lied about WMDs, is Obama lying about Benghazi? Or is intelligence info sometimes wrong?" he asks.
Well, I don't believe Bush and his administration lied about what they thought about WMD and Iraq, so much as they systematically downplayed doubt in the intelligence reporting and urged America to war because "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice put it in September 2002. The US ended up going to a war that cost trillions of dollars, replaced a counterbalance to Iran's regional ambitions with a government that is much friendlier to the current US public enemy No. 1, and killed more than 4,400 US troops and 100,000 Iraqis.
The two situations are simply not analogous, and there remains hope that an accurate picture of what happened will ultimately be cobbled together and reasonable steps will be taken to bring the killers to justice.