Why did Paula Broadwell think the CIA had taken prisoners in Benghazi?

November 12, 2012

A YouTube video of Paula Broadwell's speech at the University of Denver, which is now set as "private." (YouTube)

Paula Broadwell, the former military intelligence officer whose alleged affair with CIA Director David Petraeus culminated in the end of his career, had earlier made some startling, now-revealed claims about the agency's role in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi.

In an Oct. 26 speech at the University of Denver, she said that Libyan militants had attacked the post to retrieve some fellow fighters who'd been taken prisoner at the nearby CIA annex. She also seems to suggest that Petraeus himself knew about it, implying that he may have been her source. Here's the relevant passage from the speech, transcribed in full here by Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell.

Now, I don't know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex had actually, um, had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back. So that's still being vetted.

The challenging thing for General Petraeus is that in his new position, he's not allowed to communicate with the press. So he's known all of this -- they had correspondence with the CIA station chief in, in Libya. Within 24 hours they kind of knew what was happening.

The CIA is flatly denying this. "CIA adamant that Broadwell claims about agency holding prisoners at Benghazi are not true," The Post's Greg Miller tweeted. Fox News cites a single anonymous source saying that the CIA annex had prisoners at the time, and "multiple intelligence sources" as saying that the annex had at different times held prisoners. So why did she say it? I can only imagine three possible explanations, all of which should be taken with many grains of salt:

1. Intelligence from faraway conflict areas can be hazy, and the story got honestly confused. Who knows how long or convoluted the chain of information was from Benghazi to Broadwell, whether or not it went through Petraeus, and it's not hard to imagine a misstatement or mistake getting amplified.

2. She made it up or exaggerated some other piece of information, possibly including the name-dropping implication of Petraeus's knowledge, either deliberately or mistakenly.

3. The story is true, and she let slip what had otherwise remained a remarkably well-kept secret from the Benghazi incident, which has been characterized by weeks of leaks. If true, it would raise further questions about the CIA's efforts to maintain necessary levels of security.

I could be missing other possible scenarios, but all of these further raise the concern that, even if Petraeus did not allow classified intelligence to be compromised, his relationship with Broadwell may have heightened that very serious risk. 

The full story of Broadwell's access to Petraeus's world at the CIA is still not clear, but it appears to have been intimate, perhaps problematically so. The Wall Street Journal now reports that FBI investigators found classified documents on her computer. That Petraeus's relationship may have jeopardized sensitive intelligence would seem to remain the strongest case for his resignation.

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Max Fisher · November 12, 2012