Most of the excitement and flurry of news reports Friday on Benghazi concerned the changing CIA talking points. Overlooked is what is most important, namely what didn’t change.
From the get go, the CIA drafted document following Friday, Sept. 14’s briefing for the House Intelligence Committee, the CIA asserted there had been a spontaneous demonstration at the Benghazi facilities. CIA also declared that it had issued prior warnings (the latter were dropped from the talking points by the time Susan Rice got on the Sunday shows two days later). The first assertion was false and the latter made no sense, for the Benghazi facility was essentially a CIA operation, as we now know. Was the CIA saying it had warned the CIA but the CIA didn’t listen?
Both parts of this fable make sense only in light of Eli Lake’s report that the Benghazi incident was essentially a CIA blunder. Lake reports that “CIA officers at the Benghazi mission’s annex had responsibility for vetting the Libyan militia that they counted on, but failed to arrive, as one of the first responders on the night of the 9-11 anniversary attacks.” He notes that while “two former SEALs—Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods—helped lead a team that rescued all but two of the U.S. personnel at the Benghazi mission that evening,” the CIA’s essential error — failing to vet the February 17 Martyr’s Brigade — was the critical error that allowed the attackers to enter and eventually kill four Americans. Moreover, in Benghazi, as Lake reports, “23 of the 30 people evacuated from the Benghazi compound on the evening of the attack were CIA officers using State Department cover.”
In that light the talking points from the beginning can be seen as an effort by the CIA to deflect blame.
So let’s run through the sequence of events.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, Benghazi is attacked. At 2 a.m. (Libyan time, presumably) Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya, spoke directly to Hillary Clinton. Everyone on that call understands it to be an organized terrorist attack.
Almost immediately CIA knows this is a terrorist attack with Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda affiliated group, involved. We know the CIA had intercepts between the Benghazi attackers and Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. And of course CIA had access to all those CIA operatives working under State Department cover.
But on Wed. Sept 12 the president goes to the Rose Garden and hedges, refusing to call it a terrorist attack. Is he being cautious or is the cover story already coming into play?
On the same day, Sept. 12, the State Department does a background briefing for the media laying out the sequence of attacks. There was no spontaneous attack. Instead an organized attack complete with mortar fire is described. State plainly understands, as did CIA at this point, that this was terrorism.
Friday, Sept. 14, Gen. David Petraeus goes to the Hill to brief lawmakers. It is unclear which version he relates, the video demonstration or the deliberate attack. The lawmakers ask for talking points. In their first incarnation the talking points from CIA combine the narrative, saying the attack was “spontaneous inspired” by the anti-Muslim video but that CIA did “know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qa’ida” participated. That afternoon, the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet the caskets returning from Libya. Clinton says, “This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.”
According to Charles Wood, father of SEAL Tyrone Wood, Clinton vows to him privately to get the maker of the video. What happened to the sense in the building at the State Department that this was an organized attack?
Still on Sept. 14, Jay Carney at the White House podium insists this is all about a video. He denies any prior warnings (contrary to CIA’s language). He says there is no information this is an organized attack. Virtually all of this is false.
Early on the evening of Sept. 14, the CIA sends around the talking points. A State Department spokeswoman raises flags that this goes well beyond what the State Department is saying with regard to the identity of the attacks. So why should lawmakers be saying more in public than the department is allowed to? She also spots the warning language, which is plainly CIA maneuvering (recall the CIA vetted the militia at a facility almost entirely manned by CIA). She throws up her hands, says there should be a meeting. At the White House, adviser Ben Rhodes agrees.
The White House technically doesn’t make the changes, but the CIA drafts and redrafts following the deputies meeting in which the White House was amply represented. The talking points get watered down. They now are not only for use for the Hill but also for the ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who is picked, presumably by the White House, to carry the message. It is an old Washington game to select someone with no first-hand knowledge of events. Rice fits the bill.
But wait. The message she delivers, centering on the anti-Muslim video, is not one that the State Department ever believed. It isn’t what the CIA knows to be true. To pinpoint precisely how that came to be we need answers to the following:
Did CIA come up with the video story on its own or was that the narrative selected by the White House?
Why did the State Department approve talking points in the deputies meeting knowing them not to be accurate? Why did Clinton recite them at the casket ceremony on Sept. 14?
What was discussed in the deputies meeting and did the participants understand (or intend) that the talking points were inaccurate?
Who picked Susan Rice and why?
What intelligence was made available to Rice and what briefings did she get over the weekend? Did she know that the intelligence contradicted her main message?”
Why did the president continue to harp on the video up through his United Nations speech on Sept. 25?
Why did Clinton confidante Cheryl Mills react so angrily when Hicks took it upon himself to talk to a congressional delegation without a State Department minder?
What we can say is that this was an intelligence failure and a national security breakdown weeks before an election. It was a CIA foul up. It would sully Clinton’s victory lap. If it were spontaneous, and therefore unforeseeable, it wouldn’t be so bad. And if it later turned out the attack had nothing to do with the video, well they’d mumble about the fog of war or insist it made no difference. In any event, like Scarlet O’Hara they’d worry about that another day. It’s now another day.