President Obama claims he was only repeating what the intelligence community told him when his administration asserted that the attack in Benghazi began with a spontaneous protest inspired by an Internet video. If that’s the case, there is a simple way to prove it: Give the new congressional select committee investigating Benghazi his daily intelligence briefings that show exactly what he was told.
There is precedent for doing so. In 2004, at the request of the 9/11 Commission, President George W. Bush declassified and publicly released the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) delivered to him before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. No sitting president had ever declassified a PDB while still in office. But Bush did it anyway, releasing the report titled “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.” It warned that the FBI had detected “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings” but contained no actionable intelligence that could have stopped the 9/11 attacks from happening.
What’s good enough for Bush should be good enough for Obama. Congress should ask the president to follow precedent and release the PDBs he received in the days after the Benghazi attack.
There is no good reason for Obama to refuse such a request. If Obama is right that the intelligence community told him the attack was the result of a protest over the Internet video, releasing the PDBs will demonstrate that he is telling the truth — and put the Benghazi debate to rest once and for all.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that is what the Benghazi PDBs would show. That’s because when the intelligence community presents judgments to the president, it always does two things: First, it attaches a level of confidence (low, medium or high) to its judgments. And second, it includes dissenting views, if there are any.
The PDBs would reveal what level of confidence the intelligence community put in the judgment that the Benghazi attack was video-related and spontaneous. They would also tell us whether that confidence level declined between the time of the Sept. 12, 2012, attack and when Susan Rice made her now infamous rounds on the Sunday shows on Sept. 16.
The Benghazi PDBs would also reveal what dissenting views in the intelligence community were presented to the president and his top aides. We know that by the time Rice went on the air, acting CIA director Michael Morell had informed the White House that the CIA station chief on the ground in Libya had dissented from the spontaneous-protest narrative. Moreover, Gen. Robert Lovell, who served as deputy director of intelligence for U.S. Africa Command at the time of the attack, testified last week that our military intelligence community determined within hours that “there was no demonstration gone terribly awry” and that this was a terrorist attack. The PDBs would tell us if, when and how those dissenting judgments were shared with the president and his top national security advisers.
Policymakers are not simply passive clients of their intelligence briefers. Good consumers of intelligence ask questions, challenge assumptions and probe for more information. In January 2012, the Post ran a glowing profile of how the president ran his daily briefings, portraying him as an outstanding intelligence consumer. “Obama reads the PDB ahead of time and comes to the morning meeting with questions. Intelligence briefers are there to answer those questions, expand on a point or raise a new issue,” The Post reported, adding that “questions for the intelligence community raised by the president and others are carried back to the individual agencies, primarily the CIA, and become priority items. Answers, when available, come back that day or are sometimes included in later PDBs.”
If that is the case, then did Obama question the video-inspired-spontaneous-protest narrative? Did he ask why the CIA station chief in Libya dissented and whether others did as well? Did he get answers the same day or in his next briefing? If so, what were those answers? And what were he and his senior national security officials saying publicly while those questions were being asked privately?
There’s only one way to find out: Release the PDBs.
Bush did. There is no reason Obama can’t do the same.