The Magazine

What About the Video?

The Benghazi email dump leaves some big questions unanswered

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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So, too, does an email from CIA director David Petraeus to Chip Walter, on the legislative affairs staff at the agency, after Petraeus was provided a final draft of the talking points that had been through the interagency scrubbing. “No mention of the Cairo cable, either?” he wrote. “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then.” Petraeus’s use of the word “either,” suggests he disliked not just the omission of Cairo but the removal of something else as well.

The Cairo reference is important for another reason. It is the first step on a long, circuitous journey to understanding why the CIA initially reported that the Benghazi attacks had been “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo” and how the Obama administration came to depend on that phrase in selling its narrative about a YouTube video.

There was an intercepted communication between two al Qaeda-linked terrorists, one of whom participated in the Benghazi attack. According to sources familiar with the communication, a jihadist in Libya, believed to be a member of Ansar al Sharia (AAS), reported to a more senior operative about his participation in the Benghazi attack. The AAS member mentioned having seen the Cairo protests earlier in the day before joining the attack on the diplomatic facility in Benghazi. (There is disagreement among analysts whether the jihadist joined the Benghazi attacks because he had seen the protests in Cairo or simply after he had seen them.)

The intelligence community knew about the communication within 24 hours of the Benghazi attack. It would serve as the basis for two claims in the initial draft of the CIA talking points—“spontaneously inspired” and “Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda.” The “spontaneous” language, which would prove dubious, survived the scrubbing process and was in the final talking points. The “ties to al Qaeda” language, which would prove true, was stricken.

That connection to Cairo, however tenuous, initially suited the purposes of both the CIA and the Obama administration. The CIA had warned about the possibility of protests in Cairo. An early version of the talking points included this bullet point: “On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy Cairo and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.” 

You can see the bureaucratic logic. It was all about avoiding blame: We didn’t specifically warn about attacks on 9/11/12 in Benghazi, but we warned about possible attacks at an embassy in the region. And by definition a spontaneous attack could not have been prevented.

The Cairo cable did not survive the interagency editing process. But the claim that Benghazi had been “spontaneously inspired” by the protests in Cairo would prove very useful for the Obama administration.

Jihadists did, in fact, demonstrate outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012. It took no great skill to predict this, as they had announced their intention to do so on Facebook in the days before the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As Thomas Joscelyn has reported, Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, helped plan the protest. Numerous well-known al Qaeda sympathizers were involved. They raised a black al Qaeda flag in place of the American flag and chanted, “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama.” An obscure YouTube video mocking the Prophet Muhammad that had aired on Egyptian television days earlier was the pretext for the demonstration. It was, in the words of one U.S. intelligence official, “a classic information operation.”

And it worked. The agency’s attempts at CYA had given Obama officials an opening, and they quickly took it. On these thin strands, the Obama administration built its explanation for Benghazi. There had been a demonstration in Cairo. The leaders of that protest used a YouTube video to incite a mob. A Benghazi attacker had seen the Cairo protest. He later participated in the attack in Benghazi. 

A quadruple bank shot. And yet within days this previously obscure film became a central component of the Obama administration’s messaging on the Benghazi attacks. The Obama administration moved quickly to elevate the importance of the video. An attack that evolved from what the president would call “natural protests” by a mob over a video was a much better fit with the president’s claim that “al Qaeda is on a path to defeat” than assaults planned by al Qaeda-linked jihadists on multiple U.S. diplomatic facilities on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.

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