Having voluntarily stepped into this public furor, the ODNI is likely to face more questions.
Some will deal with process. Did the idea for the statement originate with the ODNI? Would such a news release have gone forward absent White House approval of the concept? Was the text shielded from White House review before publication? Was Congress consulted or even informed? If the answer to any of these questions is no, the document — whatever its intrinsic merits — will be vulnerable to being labeled political.
There are also questions about the quality of the assessment. The release says that originally “there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously.” What was the evidence of spontaneity? One must not confuse the absence of evidence of prior planning with evidence of the absence of such planning.
And how does spontaneity comport with the use of heavy weapons, indirect fire and sequential assaults against two separate installations? These circumstances are what prompted House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) to characterize the attacks early on as “a planned, coordinated event.” It was probably these same circumstances — known soon after the attack — that caused White House spokesman Jay Carney to belatedly admit that it was “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”
The ODNI release noted that “as we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment.” When? After attacks, there are usually competing hypotheses about what happened. When did the case for “deliberate and organized” begin to challenge and overtake “spontaneous”?
What were the relative strengths of the arguments when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on Sunday talk shows, labeling the events as spontaneous and not premeditated, to be followed 72 hours later by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center unequivocally labeling them terrorist attacks?
These are not unfair questions. As they are answered, it will be essential for intelligence officials — even after having publicly entered this fray — to keep in mind the “door” through which they still enter this process.