The CIA in the last three decades has had quite a track record of errors and misjudgments. It didn’t spot the fall of the Shah. It was taken by surprise by the collapse of the Soviet Union. “In May 1998, the CIA didn’t get wind of India’s intention to set off several underground nuclear blasts, in what Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called a ‘colossal failure of our nation’s intelligence gathering.'” Like other Western intelligence agencies, it was convinced Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It insisted in 2007 that the Iranians had ceased its nuclear arms program. It didn’t anticipate the Arab Spring.
And, despite its assertion that it warned the administration about the threat to Benghazi, it failed there, too, in not vetting properly the local militia and leaving what was essentially a CIA facility insufficiently protected. (If it really did warn the administration, it didn’t listen to its own admonitions.)
It is with that background that we should evaluate the Benghazi fiasco. When General David Petraeus went to the Hill to brief the House Intelligence Committee on Sept. 14 and his agency issued its first version of the talking points, it again misread the situation. The only aspect of the talking points created by CIA that did not change was the false assertion that a spontaneous demonstration sparked by an anti-Muslim video had led to the deaths of four Americans. It was known to be wrong when it was sent out on Sept. 14 (the participation of Ansar al-Sharia and its communication with al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb was well known and those CIA personnel evacuated after the attack certainly knew there had been no demonstration).
When Petraeus reportedly dubbed the talking points after the serial edits “useless,” he should have said they were false. He knew better. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew better. (The permanent foreign service personnel who refused to hype the video and who accurately recounted in an off-the-record briefing on Sept. 12 the incidents as they occurred on Sept. 11 certainly knew better.)
Yesterday, there was some back-and-forth among journalists when CNN’s Jake Tapper found that the actual emails sent among the agencies on Sept. 14 before the deputies meeting didn’t match the versions reported by Jonathan Karl and Steve Hayes, who presumably got the inaccurate summaries from the same place (House Republicans, we can surmise). In the actual version, Ben Rhodes at the White House, who kicked the matter to the deputies meeting on Sept. 15, did not single out State. In other words, the summary was done in such a way as to ever so slightly tip the responsibility for the edits in State’s direction. Karl, to his credit, made this clear in a follow up report.
As bad as CIA has been in anticipating intelligence failures over the last few decades, it is very good at spinning Congress and, in turn, the media. This does not change the fact that the president eagerly repeated the false narrative about Benghazi for weeks (and just the other day falsely asserted that he had tagged the incident as terrorism on Sept. 12). It does not change the fact that Jay Carney repeatedly gave false information from the White House podium (why was his counterpart at State more honest and accurate than he?). It does not change the fact that on Sept. 14 Hillary Clinton was repeating the video narrative privately and publicly at the ceremony receiving the casket. It does not change the fact that Cheryl Mills was dispatched to hush up Gregory Hicks in Libya and prevent him from interacting with congressional delegation.
But the incident does show how deeply invested was the CIA in calibrating the story and then the investigation in such a way as to minimize its own role in the security failure and the post-attack prevarication. The few dead-end spinners for the administration who claim the summary exonerates the White House and/or Hillary Clinton should think twice about peddling the White House nonsense. But, likewise, those who take at face value the CIA version of the incident (conveyed through House staff) need to question whether they are being spun.
It’s time to put both Petraeus and Clinton under oath in public to resolve many of these issues. Likewise, the White House should offer up its national security team, including Rhodes, John Brennan (now heading the CIA), White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. They were just as responsible for losing track of (and interest in) Libya and in racing to deflect blame after the fact. By the way, do they know where the president was that night? It’s time to find that out, too.