Three hours before the vice presidential debate here on October 11, Stephanie Cutter, a top spokesman and deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama, previewed Joe Biden’s explanation for the administration’s ever-changing narrative on the deadly 9/11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In short: The intelligence made us do it. The reason administration officials repeatedly told the country a story that was untrue—in virtually all its particulars—is that they got bad information from the intelligence community. Or so they say.
At the debate, moderator Martha Raddatz noted “there were no protesters” that day in Libya, and asked Biden why the administration’s talk of protests “went on for weeks.”
Biden answered directly: “Because that’s exactly what we were told by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.”
Cutter pointed to a September 28 statement from Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). “Take a look at the director of national intelligence’s statement, which you may disagree with, but you can’t accuse them of playing politics,” Cutter told Fox News anchor Bret Baier. “His statement, two weeks after the attack, said that there was an original conclusion that people were taking advantage of protests surrounding that [anti-Muslim] video to attack the embassy. We then learned weeks later that it was a deliberate, premeditated attack by terrorists.”
First, it’s worth noting that the statement did not come from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, as Cutter claimed. It came from a spokesman. This isn’t a trivial distinction. Much thought is put into whose name goes on statements like this. Why wasn’t it Clapper’s?
Second, Cutter’s timeline and the ODNI statement are not consistent. Cutter claims the White House learned the truth about the attacks “weeks later.” The statement from the ODNI spokesman says only that the earliest assessment, “in the immediate aftermath,” turned out to be wrong. The statement reads, in relevant part: “In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. . . . As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
The obvious question: When did the intelligence community tell the White House (and other policymakers) that the assault on the compound was a premeditated terrorist attack conducted by al Qaeda-linked jihadists? Was it really weeks later as both Biden and Cutter claim?
It was not. Two U.S. officials familiar with the reporting on the Benghazi attack tell The Weekly Standard that revisions to the initial reports came within days—sometimes within hours. Intelligence products published on September 12, sources tell us, included detailed evidence that al Qaeda-linked jihadists were involved in the Benghazi attacks.
* As first reported by Newsweek’s Eli Lake, within hours of the attack, “U.S. intelligence agencies monitored communications from jihadists affiliated with the group that led the attack and members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s North African affiliate.” Lake reported that the intelligence was so detailed, U.S. officials “had even pinpointed the location of one of those attackers.”
* Senior State Department officials were in contact with security agents on the ground in Benghazi, in real time, as the attacks unfolded. In conversations that evening and the next day U.S. officials in Libya gave no indication that there had been any protest of any kind.
* On September 12, the New York Times reported: “American and European officials said that while many details about the attack remained unclear, the assailants seemed organized, well trained and heavily armed, and they appeared to have at least some level of advance planning.”
* That same day, Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he had no doubt the attacks were planned. “It was a coordinated, military-style, commando-type raid.”
* Democrats said the same thing. Representative Adam Smith, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said: “This was not just a mob that got out of hand. Mobs don’t come in and attack, guns blazing. I think that there is a growing consensus it was preplanned.”
* Senator Carl Levin, leaving a briefing with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, was asked if the attack was planned: “There’s been evidence of that. . . . The attack looked like it was planned and premeditated, sure.”
* On September 14, a U.S. official told Reuters that while the question of planning was an open one, “Everything I have seen says this was a highly armed, organized attack. Not a mob reacting to a movie.”
The officials who gave these assessments—elected and unelected, Democrat and Republican—were in a position to do so for one reason: the intelligence. Most important: There is no intelligence whatsoever linking the Benghazi attack to the anti-Muslim video.
Notice that all of those assessments came before U.N. ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five political talk shows September 16 and linked the Libya attack to the video. And they came well before Barack Obama appeared on David Letterman on September 18 and did the same.
Obama: You had a video that was released by somebody who lives here, a sort of shadowy character who is extremely offensive video directed at Muhammad and Islam.
David Letterman: Making fun of the Prophet Muhammad.
Obama: Making fun of the Prophet Muhammad. And, so, this caused great offense. In much of the Muslim world. But, what also happened was extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies, including the consulate in Libya.
There are two possibilities. Either the intelligence community had a detailed picture of what happened in Benghazi that night and failed to share it with other administration officials and the White House. Or the intelligence community provided that detailed intelligence picture to others in the administration, and Obama, Biden, Clinton, Susan Rice, and others ignored and manipulated the intelligence to tell a politically convenient—but highly inaccurate—story.
If it’s the former, DNI James Clapper should be fired. If it’s the latter, what happened in Benghazi—and what happened afterwards—will go down as one of the worst scandals in recent memory.
It seems far more likely that it’s the latter. After all, is it conceivable that White House officials at the highest levels were not actively engaged in interagency meetings to determine what happened in Benghazi? Is it conceivable that intelligence officials, knowing there was no evidence at all of a link between the film and Benghazi, would fail to tell the president and his colleagues that their claims were unfounded? Is it conceivable that somehow the latest intelligence on the 9/11 attacks was left out of Obama’s intelligence briefings in the days after 9/11? It would have been a priority for every professional at the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council to discover exactly what happened in Benghazi as soon as possible. Is it conceivable that the information wasn’t passed to the most senior figures in the administration?
No, it’s really not. And therefore, the fact that these senior figures misled us—and still mislead us—is a scandal of the first order.