Benghazi: and the Intelligence Community

Big news from Washington right now, in addition to the budget negotiations, has to do with UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who John McCain has promised to block if President Obama names her Secretary of State, which the President is rumored to be considering.  Rice is certainly qualified: Rhodes Scholar, expert on Africa, academic credentials, served in a number of capacities under President Clinton.  Aside from the meaningless irony of both Presidents Bush and Obama having African-American women named Rice heading State, she’d be a great choice.  But she’s part of the Benghazi narrative, and that means she’s anathema to the Right.

I’ve been chatting with some of my conservative friends about Benghazi lately, trying to figure out what they think happened.  To me, it’s perfectly straightforward; last September 11 was a very tough day for State and for the CIA.  Protests over that wretched video all over the Middle East and North Africa, especially Egypt, which is such a powder keg anyway, distracted everyone, and so, quite understandably, both State and the CIA had a hard time figuring out that the terrorist attack in Libya was a whole ‘nother thang.  To conservatives, it all suggests treason, or maybe murder, by President Obama and his administration. Here’s how they put it together: the CIA had intel regarding an Al Queda attack in Libya, which the administration, under political pressure from the President, ignored.  The administration also ignored requests for better security at the Benghazi mission, because Obama wanted to prove how much Libya loves him.  Then, when the attack happened, the administration ordered CIA security forces to stand down.  Then, when the whole thing went sour and Ambassador Stevens was dead, they falsely blamed the Libyan attack on that stupid video, as a smokescreen and cover-up.  So on September 16, when Susan Rice made the rounds on various media outlets, she lied to everyone, kept referring to the video. President Obama lied, and quite possibly is complicit in the murder of Chris Stevens.  He lied, because that’s who he is, a man who lies pathologically.  He lied because he’s a liar.

Benghazi has become more than a terrorist attack on a mission, it’s become an icon, a fulcrum for Obama hatred.  Since I admire the man personally, I don’t get that, but I do remember how liberals felt about Bush–Bush derangement syndrome, was George Will’s pungent phrase for it. BDS.  So Benghazi is, for conservatives, the delivery system for the ODS pathogen. Obama derangement syndrome.

I believe that we should rarely if ever ascribe simple human SNAFUs to a conspiracy.  Here’s my counter-narrative: everyone screwed up.  The CIA had intel regarding a possible Al Queda attack in Libya–okay, but they have piles of intel regarding a whole bunch of possible attacks, and sorting it all out is incredibly difficult.  They did have requests for better Benghazi security, and competing reports that suggested the security was adequate.  And in the noise and confusion of a day where all sorts of things were going wrong all over the world, analysts initially conflated the embassy protests over the video happening all over the world with the attack in Benghazi.  So when Susan Rice went out to talk to the media, she followed the talking points she was given.

What we learned today, and what prompted this post, is breaking news fresh off the wire:

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” from the unclassified talking points given to Ambassador Susan Rice on the Benghazi consulate attack – with the agreement of the CIA and FBI. The White House or State Department did not make those changes.

That’s from CBS News: here’s the whole story.  So, no, there was no cover-up, it didn’t come from the White House, Susan Rice told the story she was told to tell. The facts support the ‘screw-up’ narrative, not the ‘conspiracy’ narrative. Which has been true from the start.

Oh, and David Petraeus wasn’t asked to fall on his sword to prevent the story getting out.  In fact, as the Petraeus story has unfolded, it’s gotten more and more bizarrely high-schoolish.  So David was sleeping with Paula, but also maybe Jill, so Paula texted Jill and all in her grille, so Jill called her FBI BFF, and he got David in deep doo doo, but then he started sexting Jill, and . . . .”  Oh my freaking heck.

People screw up.  Petty jealousies and schoolyard crushes and hurt feelings and misunderstood communications; even very important and intelligent and powerful people are as prone to foolishness and selfishness as any thirteen-year-old. Oh, and some of them have access to nuclear launch codes.  Scared yet?

So why did the CIA get this wrong?  Why do they always get it wrong?  This is, after all, the US intelligence community we’re talking about.  The same guys who got basically the entire Cold War wrong.  The same folks who consistently got the Soviet Union’s economic capacity and performance completely wrong.  The same folks who were taken completely by surprise when Iran fell and our embassy there was occupied, who were shocked and unprepared for Tiananmen Square, who did not anticipate the Arab Spring.  Who were surprised by 9/11.  And who thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The loudest voices on the Right are screaming ‘impeachment’ over Benghazi.  So let’s look at Iraq, by way of instructive comparison.  Let’s start with Douglas Feith.  This is a blog, not an academic paper, but I do generally try to get my facts right and share my sources: the best book on the intelligence leading up to Iraq is probably Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, but George Tenet’s autobiography is also instructive, as is the work of Lawrence Wright.  Anyway, Feith was a protege of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and close to Vice-President Cheney.  He was put in the Pentagon, in charge of the Office of Special Plans (Orwellian title, that), and, by order of the Vice-President, was given access to all raw intel regarding Iraq.  And every day, he’d pore through all that intelligence, looking for evidence of WMD. Well, him and the, like, two other guys in that office.

Look, the ‘intelligence community‘– the CIA, the NSA, the DIA, the OICI, the Armed Services intelligence wings, sixteen federal agencies in all–they’re not bozos and they’re not stupid.  They knew perfectly well that Feith’s office was cherry-picking intel.  They also knew perfectly well that in that political climate, finding evidence of Iraqi WMD would create a nice short-cut to career advancement.  The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that Saddam either had or was building WMD and did therefore pose a threat to US interests was heavily built on Feith’s work.  It was, frankly, a dishonest NIE (Tenet admits as much).  But it was at least good enough to fool a very bright and very intelligence-savvy career military officer like Colin Powell.  It was good enough to fight a war over.

US casualties in Iraq: 4, 486.  Iraqi casualties: in excess of 100,000.  Over a million, according to the British medical journal Lancet‘s best estimate.

So was Douglas Feith criminally prosecuted for manipulating intelligence leading to a war resulting in 4500 US casualities, and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualities?  No.  Was Paul Wolfowitz, or Richard Perle even so much as reprimanded.  Impeach Obama over Benghazi?  Where was the call to impeach Dick Cheney over Iraq?

No, the official Iraq narrative was that it was a mistake, an intelligence blunder.  We thought Saddam had WMD–sorry, but it turned out he just didn’t. Our bad.  It is a shame that there wasn’t somebody already in Iraq looking for them, but Saddam wouldn’t let anyone in. Feith found specific evidence of specific locations for WMD.  Shame we couldn’t check those places out.

Enter Hans Blix.  The UN inspector, under the authority of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, had received what he described as ‘pro-active if not immediate’ cooperation from Saddam’s government, and was a few months from completing a comprehensive report on Iraqi weapons, concluding exactly what we now know to be true; Iraq had no WMD.  If the US hadn’t attacked Iraq when we did, March 2003, we would have lost our cassus belli.  And it’s not like Blix wasn’t telling anyone what he had and hadn’t found.  January, February 2003, Blix was in the US, desperately trying to get someone in the media and/or US government to listen to him.  But by then, America wasn’t interested.

The sadly ironic fourth verse of our National Anthem includes this verse: “then conquer we must, if our cause it is just, and this be our motto: in God is our Trust.”  The unfortunate truth is that we have fought in many wars as a nation in which our cause was not just by any stretch of the imagination.  But we’re a patriotic people, and we like to think that our cause is always just, and that God really does bless all our endeavors, including military ones.  But the Spanish-American War, and the resulting invasion of the Phillipines?  Was that a just war?  Vietnam, just?  Iraq?

But nobody at the time was interested in hearing about Hans Blix and the non-existent WMD.  Nobody was interested in hearing about Doug Feith, or the probable reality that we were going to war over cherry-picked intel and a dishonest NIE.  We would rather focus on what a human cockroach Saddam Hussein was–and that was certainly true.  Our cause, it was just, and God would bless it. That’s what we wanted to believe. It is what we will always want to believe.

So we have to hope that CIA analysts are good at their job, and that the data they’re crunching is trustworthy.  And we have to acknowledge how incredibly difficult their job is, how immensely complicated and contradictory the intel they receive can be, and how tentative their conclusions have to be, even when the American people want certainty and reassurance.  Benghazi was about human beings who made mistakes. It was about chaos and confusion, and a really really bad day.  It was about the death of good people serving their country.  We should mourn and we should investigate, and we should try to fix whatever problems we can fix in our intelligence gathering and analysis.  And recognize just how hard the job is with which that community is tasked.  Benghazi is not a conspiracy and it doesn’t prove anything or even suggest anything untoward about this President.  It is, however, a tragedy.  Let’s not politicize the event, but let’s also not pretend it didn’t happen.



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