Confirmed: Dutch Ruppersberger, NSA Intercepts, and Deep Hypocrisy on Leaks

WSJ has a tick-tock of how the talking points on Benghazi developed. It confirms two of the things I noted yesterday. The Intelligence Community developed the talking points behind the pseudo-scandal pursuant to a request from Dutch Ruppersberger.

Later on Sept. 13, then-director David Petraeus presented the CIA’s initial findings to the Senate Intelligence Committee. His conclusions mirrored that morning’s intelligence reporting. He said the attack began “spontaneously” following the protest in Cairo over the video. He also discussed the reports of involvement of Ansar al-Sharia and the al Qaeda affiliate and called the assault a terrorist attack.

Mr. Petraeus presented the same findings the next day to the House intelligence panel, whose top Democrat, Maryland Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, requested unclassified talking points for lawmakers to use when speaking about the attack.

And the IC decide to withhold the information about a tie to AQIM in part because they were NSA intercepts.

After rounds of bureaucratic exchanges, the CIA officials seeking to remove al Qaeda won the argument, and officials agreed to retain the umbrella term “extremists” but drop the mention of al Qaeda.

The term represented a hedge the CIA used because the attack’s links to al Qaeda had yet to be confirmed. This argument was that including the name would have required additional wording to indicate uncertainty about the al Qaeda links—language that could have opened additional avenues for misinterpretation.

The information was derived from what was seen as a “tenuous” source—intercepts of phone calls between suspected militants saying that al Qaeda-linked militants took part in the attack. The evidence was deemed by some of the intelligence officials to be inconclusive.

Eliminating references to al Qaeda also would protect sources, some of the officials argued. With so few suspected al Qaeda-affiliated militants taking part in the attacks, officials were concerned that fingering al Qaeda in official information would tip them off that they were being monitored. [my emphasis]

Just as interesting, the WSJ hints at how much of the public pseudo-scandal derives from internal fights–this fight between IC bureaucrats over whether to include the al Qaeda link or not. It makes it clear that those privy to the intelligence but not part of the vetting process suspected political calculations influenced the talking points.

Among some military and intelligence officials who were familiar with the classified intelligence but weren’t involved in the talking-points debate, Ms. Rice’s TV comments on Sept. 16 came as a surprise. They questioned why officials like her didn’t state the clear belief within intelligence circles that al Qaeda’s North African affiliate was involved in the attack, and they saw the administration’s decision not to point to al Qaeda as a reluctance to talk about the attack as terrorism.

Some career intelligence analysts “were just fuming,” a former U.S. official said. Unaware of the vetting process, some questioned whether the statements from top officials were influenced by political calculations.

And one of those people, we can assume, leaked the contents of the intercepts–precisely the thing the IC was trying to protect–to Eli Lake.

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.

[snip]

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.”

Now, I’m not complaining that that information was liberated (though it did have precisely the effect intelligence professionals worried it might: it appears to have tipped Ali Ani al-Harzi off that he was being monitored, which in turn appears to have led him to flee Libya. This information, in more generic form, should have been released.

I’m amused by the silence of everyone–the Administration that has prosecuted a record number of leakers, the Congressman teaming up to pass new laws to criminalize leaking, and the Republicans who accuse the Administration of leaking to influence the election–regarding what was obviously a pretty incautious leak. Yeah, I get the politics here makes public complaint impossible for just about everyone (save, perhaps, the NSA, whose wiretaps were revealed).

But it shows just how selective most of the claims of concern about leaks really are.

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.

5 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    “…it appears to have tipped Ali Ani al-Harzi off that he was being monitored, which in turn appears to have led him to flee Libya. ..”

    he must have been one naive sob. it seems inconceivable to me that any anti-american guerilla would not assume he was being monitored by the americans.

    on a related matter – regarding the new “internal threat” rules – one wonders whether nsa now has authorization to spy on american officials who have access to nsa-generated info to insure nsa secrecy is protected.

    if so, the slippery slope just got a lot steeper.

  2. lefty665 says:

    @orionATL: “naive sob” – Maybe, maybe not. We don’t know what security measures al-Harzi had employed. He may not have been using an unencrypted ATT wireless account in his own name.

    Now that he knows he’s been had, he surely has changed his methods. That means NSA has to figure out what they are and how to get into them. That’s a lot more work than just continuing to listen. It also means they may miss things we’d really like to know until they get back in. That he has reportedly fled and has not been droned makes it likely NSA is still chewing on the problem.

    “authorization to spy” NSA’s vacuuming it all up. If automated keyword scanning turns up sensitive information, it seems reasonable to expect those communications would be looked at by a human. Remember the threats to whistleblowers and journalists to the effect ‘we won’t need warrants next time, we’ve got it all’?

    “slippery slope just got a lot steeper” What’s steeper than vertical?

  3. orionATL says:

    “…“slippery slope just got a lot steeper” What’s steeper than vertical?”

    lol!

    tx.
    after i wrote that comment i began to reflect a bit and realized, just as you observed, that i didn’t have any idea of how he was communicating. what might have been revealed by the dc shuffle was an nsa way of getting around guerilla counter-measures which would indeed be something nsa would never want disclosed.

  4. lefty665 says:

    When people find out their mail is being read, they can take umbrage and make it harder to get in next time. Just because someone’s living in the 3rd world it doesn’t mean they’re dumb. Revealing sources/methods makes NSAs legitimate job harder, sometimes a lot. That’s something we all should care about.

    Glad you can laugh. We’ve been had domestically for a decade or more. You can read about the sources and methods in open literature. It’s the dark side of the force. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shadow_Factory That is worth caring about too.

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