The intelligence community obviously feels burned by having its tentative assessments become a political football in this campaign and, in truth, one obvious lesson is that the United States could use much better real-time intelligence from places such as Libya.
The Benghazi attack produced a swirl of intelligence reporting, some of it contradictory. The Associated Press reported Friday that within 24 hours of the assault, the CIA station chief in Libya cabled headquarters that eyewitnesses said the attack had been carried out by militants. But the analysts evidently didn’t feel that they had any single report that allowed them to make a definitive determination about the nature of the attack.
Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
A memo prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center on Sept. 14 illustrates the fragmentary nature of the evidence: “As time progresses, we are learning more, but we still don’t have a complete picture of what happened,” noted the analysts. “At this point, we are not aware of any actionable intelligence that this attack was planned or imminent. . . . We are very cautious about drawing any firm conclusions at this point with regard to identification and motivation of the attackers.”
The analysts seem confident that al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, played no direct role in the Benghazi events, even though he called on Sept. 10 for revenge attacks against the United States. “He’s not a manager, he’s not a planner, he’s not an operator. He’s a theologian, and that doesn’t have much resonance now. He’s almost irrelevant, he’s so concerned about his security, so hunkered down,” said the senior official.
Ironically, the Sept. 15 talking points that were the basis for Rice’s televised comments were requested by the House intelligence committee. Ideally, the congressional oversight committees would provide bipartisan support for intelligence officials who are probing the attack. But in the heat of the final pre-election weeks, the murky details of what happened in Libya have instead become political assault weapons.