Benghazi: A Poster Child for Covert Ops Blowback
You’ve no doubt heard that, last Friday (a pre-holiday Friday, as some people are already on their way to Thanksgiving), the Benghazi scandal ended with a fizzle.
The House Intelligence Committee released its report on the Benghazi attack, which basically says all the scandal mongering has been wrong, that Susan Rice’s talking points came from the CIA, that no one held up any rescue attempts, and so on and so on. This post will attempt to lay out why that might have happened. The short version, however, is that the report reveals (but does not dwell on) a number of failures on the part of the CIA that should raise real concerns about Syria.
Note that not all Republicans were as polite as the ultimate report. Mike Rogers, Jeff Miller, Jack Conaway, and Peter King released an additional views report, making precisely the points you’d expect them to — though it takes them until the 4th summary bullet to claim that Administration officials “perpetuated an inaccurate story that matched the Administration’s misguided view that the United States was nearing victory over al-Qa’ida.” Democrats released their own report noting that “there was no AQ mastermind” and that “extremists who were already well-armed and well-trained took advantage of regional violence” to launch the attack. Among the Republicans who presumably supported the middle ground were firebrands like Michele Bachmann and Mike Pompeo, as well as rising Chair Devin Nunes (as you’ll see, Nunes was a lot more interested in what the hell CIA was doing in Benghazi than Rogers). The day after the initial release Rogers released a second statement defending — and pointing to the limits of and Additional Views on — his report.
Now consider what this report is and is not.
The report boasts about the 1000s of hours of work and 1000s of pages of intelligence review, as well as 20 committee events, interviews with “senior intelligence officials” and 8 security personnel (whom elsewhere the report calls “the eight surviving U.S. personnel”) who were among the eyewitnesses in Benghazi. But the bulk of the report is sourced to 10 interviews (the 8 security guys, plus the Benghazi and Tripoli CIA Chiefs), and a November 15, 2012 presentation by James Clapper, Mike Morell, Matt Olsen, and Patrick Kennedy. (Here are the slides from that briefing: part one, part two.) As I’ll show, this means some of the claims in this report are not sourced to the people who directly witnessed the events. And the reports sources almost nothing to David Petraeus, who was CIA Director at the time.
The FBI analyzed the intelligence better than CIA did
One of the best explanations for why this is such a tempered report may be that FBI performed better analysis of the cause of the attack than CIA did. This is somewhat clear from the summary (though buried as the 4th bullet):
There was no protest. The CIA only changed its initial assessment about a protest on September 24, 2012, when closed caption television footage became available on September 18, 2012 (two days after Ambassador Susan Rice spoke), and after the FBI began publishing its interviews with U.S. officials on the ground on September 22, 2012.
That is, one reason Susan Rice’s talking points said what they did is because CIA’s analytical reports still backed the claim there had been a protest outside State’s Temporary Mission Facility.
Moreover, in sustaining its judgment there had been a protest as long as it did, CIA was actually ignoring both a report from Tripoli dated September 14, and the assessment of the Chief of Station in Tripoli, who wrote the following to Mike Morell on September 15.
We lack any ground-truth information that protest actually occurred, specifically in the vicinity of the consulate and leading up to the attack. We therefore judge events unfolded in a much different manner than in Tunis, Cairo, Khartoum, and Sanaa, which appear to the the result of escalating mob violence.
In a statement for the record issued in April 2014, Mike Morell explained that Chiefs of Station “do not/not make analytic calls for the Agency.” But it’s not clear whether Morell explained why CIA appears to have ignored their own officer.
While the report doesn’t dwell on this fact, the implication is that the FBI was more successful at interviewing people on the ground — including CIA officers!! — to rebut a common assumption arising from public reporting. That’s a condemnation of CIA’s analytical process, not to mention a suggestion FBI is better at collecting information from humans than CIA is. But HPSCI doesn’t seem all that worried about these CIA failures in its core missions.
Or maybe CIA failed for some other reason. Read more →