After more than two weeks of obfuscation and misdirection from the Obama administration, the American public is coming to understand what the U.S. intelligence community learned in the 48 hours immediately following the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Among the important new details:
* Top Pentagon officials declared the assault a terrorist attack on “Day One.” Doing so enabled them to expedite any response to the attack (Yahoo! News).
* U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials understood right away that the attacks were planned for the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 (THE WEEKLY STANDARD).
* Within 24 hours of the attack, “U.S. intelligence agencies had strong indications al Qaeda-affiliated operatives were behind the attack and had even pinpointed the location of one of those attackers” (Daily Beast).
* In telephone intercepts of phone calls involving members of Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked group in Libya, members “bragged about their successful attack against the American consulate and the U.S. ambassador” (Daily Beast).
* U.S. counterterrorism officials had repeatedly warned about the growth of al Qaeda affiliate groups in Libya and noted in particular their relationship to al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan (THE WEEKLY STANDARD).
The nature of intelligence collection after an operation like the one in Benghazi means that the narrative of the attack—in both classified and open sources—will change. As intelligence professionals gain access to more data, the picture they can paint becomes fuller and more detailed. And the early narrative of an attack can evolve.
For the most part, that’s not what happened with the Obama administration’s claims about Benghazi. While top administration officials often pointed out that more complete information would be available after an investigation, this did not prevent them from offering a detailed account of what had happened in Libya. And, as we’ve noted in these pages, that account was wrong in virtually every one of its particulars.
The attack was, in fact, planned. It did involve al Qaeda-linked terrorists. It was not a copycat of the protests in Cairo, Egypt. Indeed, there was no protest outside the consulate in Benghazi at all. The U.S. compound was not well secured. The two ex-Navy SEALs killed in the attack were not there to protect the ambassador, and they were not, obviously, joined by several colleagues also providing security. The date of the attack was not coincidental. And the anti-Islam YouTube video at the center of the administration’s public relations effort had nothing to do with the assault that took the lives of four Americans.
This, more than anything, is the problem with the administration’s response. It wasn’t that they failed to provide enough information to the public, but that they provided incorrect information and did so long after it was clear to many in the intelligence community that the political narrative was false.
There are two possible explanations. Either the information widely available to intelligence professionals was not shared with those speaking on behalf of the president. Or those Obama administration officials had the accurate information and chose not to provide it.
If intelligence professionals had immediately concluded that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the YouTube video, why did top administration figures point to it as the trigger?
If the Pentagon knew on “Day One” that the attacks were planned, why was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice still denying this four days later?
If counterterrorism officials had determined that the killings were the result of a terrorist attack, why did State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refuse to acknowledge that during her briefing on September 17?
If intelligence officials knew on September 11 that the attack took place that day for a reason, why did White House press secretary Jay Carney still pretend otherwise eight days later?
Some of the misleading information provided to the public could not possibly have been a result of incomplete or evolving intelligence. The information about security for the ambassador and the compound, for instance, would have been readily available to administration officials from the beginning. And yet when Susan Rice appeared on five political talk shows on September 16, she erroneously claimed that the two ex-Navy SEALs killed in the attack were, along with several colleagues, providing security. They were not. Why did she say this?
These questions, and many others, deserve answers. And soon.