Silent Talking Points: Don’t Tell the Terrorists We Know They Exist

Between the extensive leaking from the so-called closed hearings on Thursday and Friday (Spencer’s got a good wrap-up here) and the Sunday shows (LAT has a good wrap-up here), we’ve got a little better understanding of the Administration’s current understanding of the Benghazi attack.

That said, I’ve got a different set of questions about what those show than most of the pundits commenting on it.

How strongly did Petraeus initially blame al Qaeda-related attackers?

My first question pertains to an apparent discrepancy, not about the testimony last week, but about Petraeus’ initial testimony shortly after the attack.

We know that in his testimony Friday, Petraeus said he knew fairly quickly that Ansar al-Sharia was behind the attack.

He knew “almost immediately” that Ansar al-Sharia, a loosely connected radical Islamist group, was responsible for the attack, as suggested by multiple sources and video from the scene, said the source. At the same time, a stream of intelligence — including about 20 distinct reports — also emerged indicating that a brewing furor over the anti-Islamic video preceded the attack.

The CIA eventually disproved the reports that film-related protests had anything to do with the attack. But this didn’t happen until after Petraeus’ initial briefings to lawmakers, in which he discussed all the possibilities, the source said.

Petraeus blamed some other unnamed intelligence agency for taking out the reference to Ansar al-Sharia (though the talking points came from CIA).

Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb but those names were replaced with the word “extremist” in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.

But different lawmakers have differing recollections about what Petraeus originally testified, just days after the attack. Peter King suggested that Petraeus hid the role of terrorists in his September 14 briefing to the House Intelligence Committee.

King said Petraeus had briefed the House committee on Sept. 14 and he does not recall Petraeus being so positive at that time that it was a terrorist attack. “He thought all along that he made it clear there was terrorist involvement,” King said. “That was not my recollection.”

That’s not how Dianne Feinstein (who elsewhere expressed concern about the “suffering” related to the sexy time scandal) remembers a briefing on September 12.

Feinstein, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that the now-former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David H. Petraeus, had “very clearly said that it was a terrorist attack” in a meeting with lawmakers the day after the attack in Benghazi.

Mind you, those were different briefings–it’s possible just the Gang of Four got briefed on September 12. If that’s the case (and if King is telling the truth), it would mean Petraeus was less forthcoming about terrorist involvement with the full House Committee than with a more select group of lawmakers.

And note this seems to be the reverse of the politics you’d expect. While both DiFi and King vow to get to the bottom of how the talking points were made, King seems to attribute some deceit to Petraeus whereas DiFi seems to believe the suffering Petraeus was forthright–and clear-headed–from the start.

Were we really afraid to let Ansar al-Sharia know we were onto them?

Now consider the excuse Petraeus gave for taking mention of Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM out of the unclassified talking points: we didn’t want the terrorists to know we knew about them.

Testifying out of sight, ex-CIA Director David Petraeus told Congress Friday that classified intelligence showed the deadly raid on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a terrorist attack but the administration withheld the suspected role of al-Qaida affiliates to avoid tipping them off.

I wonder if that’s the entire story.

I’m not saying the Administration deliberately used inaccurate talking points; if they had, then why did Obama name terrorism even before Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday shows? It’d be a colossal fuckup of a cover-up.

And there are certainly reasons to believe that’s why they withheld this detail. It is true that the conclusions about Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM rely in significant part on–presumably–NSA intercepts of voice communications. Here’s what Eli Lake wrote about them back on September 28 (just as Republicans rolled out their Jimmy Carter strategy).

In the hours following the 9/11 anniversary attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. intelligence agencies monitored communications from jihadists affiliated with the group that led the attack and members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s North African affiliate.


That said, the intelligence community did not offer Congress or senior Obama administration officials any consensus analysis on the perpetrator of the attack in those early days after it occurred.

The communications between members of AQIM and AAS were important. One U.S. intelligence official who has read the raw intercepts said the conversations showed that AAS operatives were subordinate to the mid-level AQIM members. In one conversation, the AQIM manager was referred to with the kinds of honorifics usually reserved in Arab society for a more powerful man. A retired senior U.S. counterterrorism official who also was familiar with the intelligence confirmed this account.

Not all U.S. officials contacted for this story piece agreed with this assessment

“Those individuals—whoever they may be—who took part in the attack all swim in the same, relatively small, extremist pond,” one U.S. official told The Daily Beast. “So there could be a number of individual or ad hoc ties with AQIM or other extremist groups. These connections alone do not mean AQIM was behind or planned the attack. This is why there’s an ongoing investigation, to identify the attackers and determine motives and relationships to extremist groups.”

And in fact, tipping off the suspected culprit that we were onto him presumably did endanger the investigation. Within days after Lake published his story, the braggart in question, Ali Ani al-Harzi, fled to Turkey in an effort to get to Syria. He was captured in Turkey–so it’s not like he escaped because of this leak. But if al-Harzi fled in response to the story, then presumably the intercepts in question have gone dark since the story, too.

So it is very credible that the Intelligence Community didn’t want to announce on the Sunday shows they had intercepts tying Ansar al-Sharia to AQIM for fear it would tip them off because that is precisely what happened two weeks later. Indeed, this scenario would suggest that NSA is the entity that withdrew the specific mention of AAS and AQIM from the talking points. If I’m not mistaken, NSA didn’t testify on Thursday with the rest of the IC.

Though of course, it’s one thing to blame extremists and another to say you blame them because you’ve been listening to their conversations.

That said, I wonder whether the IC had other motives to withhold this piece of information, like a failure to track these communications closely enough before the attack.

What happened to the other pressing questions about Benghazi?

All that said, one thing I haven’t seen in the torrent of leaks about supposedly closed sessions is any discussion of the other, more pressing questions about Benghazi, questions that should guide our security approach at other locations and hopefully would save lives.

For example, I’ve seen no discussion of,

  • Whether CIA or DOD decided against a military response
  • What the CIA was really doing at their location in Benghazi to lead the terrorists to target them
  • Why CIA didn’t have HUMINT to prevent this attack
  • Discrepancies between State and CIA versions of the attack

We these subjects–which are ultimately far more important than Susan Rice’s damn talking points–even discussed at these hearings?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

12 replies
  1. Frank33 says:

    David Petraeus told Congress Friday that classified intelligence showed the deadly raid on the U.S. Consulate in Libya was a terrorist attack but the administration withheld the suspected role of al-Qaida affiliates to avoid tipping them off.

    The Al Qaeda in Libya, or whatever they call themselves, had no idea that the their protest with mortars would chase away dozens of spies. The “Innocence of Petraeus” movie was a good cover story to continue to fool them.

    Somebody mobilized the Vast Rightwing propagandists, Limbaugh, Crazy McCain, Beck, Breitbart, to make this an impeachable offense against the President.

    And we still do not know if Ambassador Stevens was killed by Al Qaeda, or killed by Petraeus.

    And did the spy Grayson Wolfe, Natalie’s ex, work in Libya, as has been suggested?

  2. Saltinwound says:

    I still can not believe that the Candy Crowley supposed fact check in the debate was a big moment in the campaign. She barely sputtered the words out and then told Romney that he was right too. It was as muddy and incomprehensible as the rest of this story but the press chose to build it up as if it was a clean exchange that actually communicated something.

  3. FrankProbst says:

    Re: Peter King If they don’t formally transcribe these briefings, doesn’t someone at least take notes? I really don’t understand his “That was not my recollection.” statement. Did you check your notes? Did you look at the minutes from the briefing? Did you talk to other people at the briefing, to see if your recollection might be a little off? He seems even nuttier than usual right now.

    Re: Benghazi. There’s one word that has completely vanished from the discussion: Cairo. When the Benghazi attack happened, there really WAS a spontaneous protest outside the embassy in Cairo over a nutty anti-Muslim film. Embassy staff were afraid for their safety, and even put out a statement (which the right wing here condemned) distancing themselves from the film. The Benghazi attack happened many hours later, which suggests to me that the bad guys probably saw an opportune moment to strike. I would guess that there probably was a small protest outside of the Benghazi consulate by then, and the terrorists used this as cover for an attack. This would result in some confusion over who was responsible for the attack in the days afterward. And it did. But the head bad guy appears to have been captured, anyway. And the CIA, which appears to have had a large presence in Benghazi, was immediately suspicious of a terrorist strike and acted accordingly. State, on the other hand, went from worrying a lot about Cairo (where they probably a lot more people) to worrying about Benghazi (where they probably had fewer people, but the ambassador was there and ended up getting killed).

    In other words, everyone involved in this appears to have acted exactly how you would expect them the act, given their respective backgrounds. For the life of me, I can’t see what the scandal is here.

  4. greengiant says:

    Whatever extra legal activities were occurring in Benghazi via non reporting JSOC, executive order entities who never report to congress, contractors and sub contractors is one story to be investigated. Business as usual for the US, no change from Cheney to Obama.
    A perhaps more easily investigated story is the corporate right smear of Obama that blew up in late October.
    Corporate right smear timeline
    Oct 1, Romney campaign reported talking Jimmy Carter strategy
    Oct 18? General Ham resigns
    Oct 22? Charles Wilson father of CIA? contractor killed in Benghazi calls Lars Larson
    Oct 25? Reports of General Ham on various web sites to be spammed in next days.
    Search for unattributed, unattributed quotes from spam campaign.
    “I heard a story today from someone inside the military that I trust entirely. The story was in reference to General Ham that Panetta referenced in the quote below”
    Oct 26 Jennifer Griffin Fox News.
    Oct 26. Glen Beck, who will fall for Libya, Spetre. “400 persons” on real time Benghazi emails.
    Oct 26. Broadwell speach at Univ of Denver, response to question.
    Who asked the question.

  5. joanneleon says:

    I disagree that Obama named terrorism before Susan Rice’s appearance, assuming that you are referring to the Rose Garden speech. In that speech, he first hinted at the video being the instigating factor, and then in a paragraph referring to 9/11 he mentioned “act of terror” but the whole speech was a bit of a hedge.

    I realize that I am not being a loyal partisan by pointing this out and disagreeing with the overwhelming pushback of that whole event during the debate, and the acceptable D talking points on it, but so be it, and the campaign is over anyway and he won, so I see no need to carry that stuff around anymore anyway.

    After that, Rice was sent out to the Sunday shows to make it clear to the American public that this was about the video.

    I would guess that the obvious reason for the mixed messages was that it took them a few days to assess the situation, to confer with the campaign given that the solar system revolved around his reelection at that time, and to decide what the official statements were going to be. They were shocked and shaken by the Benghazi attacks, as one would expect, and they were in the middle of an all consuming presidential election campaign.

  6. saltinwound says:

    @joanneleon: These are just a few of the factors that made the debate fact check moment incomprehensible, along with Candy Crowley’s inability to form a sentence.

  7. Frank33 says:

    Benghazi was NOT a terror attack. The official story is two attacks, at the official consulate then hours later at the CIA Annex. A Terror Attack is massive, possibly random violence against as many as possible innocent civilans, to create fear and terror.

    For example, the original 9-11 attack, or Mumbai 2008 or the flattening of Gaza by Israel, these are terrorist attacks.

    Only four deaths. Only four because everyday there are four or moe deaths or soldier suicides, or just assassinations by nameless and anonymous special operators. It was not just any four people. It was an Ambassador, a highly public State Dept. Official who played computer war games, and presumably their two bodyguards.

    There were dozens of other CIA special operators, useless privatized security guards, and who knows who else. Perhaps, Grayson Wolfe? All these spooks got away just fine. None have talked about how they escaped and why they abandoned an Ambassador. In the Army, a fallen soldier is rarely abandoned.

  8. Arbusto says:

    Why does our State Department, DIA, CIA and NSA seem as rejects from Dancing with the Starts. Granted the UK has had about six hundred years to test and implement policies and procedures for MI6 and Foreign Ministry, but you’d think if the UK closed their consulate due to dangerous conditions on the ground, the US would get schooled on the same conditions and overrule the Ambassador. Even if we mistakenly think we’re better than the Brits on intel and diplomacy, why didn’t we harden the site and implement better personnel security and evacuation procedures. Maybe The Original Amateur Hour is a better comparison.

  9. AdamColligan says:

    What makes no sense to me about the whole coverup accusation is that it seems like people are trying to argue that the administration covered up a less embarrassing situation by pretending it was a more embarrassing one.

    If you’re the administration or the intelligence community, which is worse?

    (A) You failed to spot a small number of relatively well-equipped and highly determined terrorists who planned and, during a moment of turmoil and confusion, carried out an operation that they were trying very hard to keep secret.


    (B) Right in the middle of a city that you had recently fought to liberate, with your diplomats and military contacts on the ground, after a sustained period of attention focused on the country, and following several days of fervent reaction across the region directed at American diplomatic posts, you failed to spot that there was a violent groundswell of public anger that would arrange itself into a mob, march down the street, and burn down your diplomatic post.

    I’m pretty sure I know which one is less humiliating, at least from my perspective. Why on earth would I choose to mislead the public by telling them that I had missed a huge grassroots angry crowd in the city that was supposed to symbolize my foreign policy success, when really I know that the truth is that I was hit by a semi-professional terror cell?

  10. klynn says:

    I think I need to go find my copy of Seven Days In May after thinking about some of the above comments. Hmmm.

  11. inawhile says:

    Whatever else Benghazi was, is or will become it is also a means to undermine, re/misdirect and blunt the momentum, discussion and direction sparked by the election. I may just be breathing the rare air inside my own balloon, but it seems McCain and company didn’t earnestly start grandstanding until days after the election, with the crescendo of election recriminations still rising. I’ll cop to cynicism if wrong but my hunch is we still do not fully comprehend the capacity and ingenuity of back-channel Borg tactics. It’s more than merely possible that whatever push-back they can muster forestalls and, with time, renders unnecessary coming to terms with the ideological contradictions, and epic-fail of the Republican brand at the polls. In this context, Benghazi (Defense, National Security) must appear as heaven-sent and I’d wager it’s become the opening in a second-term death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy to render Obama impotent. The telltale may be if the calls for impeachment now afoot last as long as the birtha episode of Obama’s first term.

  12. Frank33 says:

    This should clear things up. This is the latest from the friendly folks of the Intelligence Community.

    There is a spokesman for the Intelligence Community. Maybe he knows Vickie Nuland Kagan.

    The unclassified talking points on Libya, developed several days after the the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, were not substantively changed by any agency outside of the intelligence community, according to the spokesman, Shawn Turner…

    The initial version included information linking individuals involved in the attack to al Qaeda, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the drafting of the talking points But when the document was sent to the rest of the intelligence community for review, there was a decision to change “al Qaeda” to “extremists.” The official said the change was made for legitimate intelligence and legal reasons, not for political purposes…

    The FBI requested a change in language which originally stated the U.S. “knew” Islamic extremists participated in the attack. According to a U.S. intelligence official the wording was changed to “there are indications” Islamic extremists participated.

    So I think this means that, “it was known Al Qaeda in Libya attacked the consulate” was changed to “Maybe some protesting extremists participated because of a movie.”

    I am confused.

Comments are closed.