The Obama administration appears to be mounting yet another version of its campaign to push back on claims that it misled on the intelligence related to the attacks in Benghazi on 9/11/12. But the new offensive by the administration, which contradicts many of its earlier claims and simply disregards intelligence that complicates its case, is raising fresh questions in the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill about the manipulation of intelligence for political purposes.
The administration's new line takes shape in two articles out Saturday, one in the Los Angeles Times and the other by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The Times piece reports that there is no evidence of an al Qaeda role in the attack. The Ignatius column makes a directly political argument, claiming that "the Romney campaign may have misfired with its suggestion that statements by President Obama and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice about the Benghazi attacks weren't supported by intelligence, according to documents provided by a senior intelligence official."
If this is the best the Obama administration can offer in its defense, they're in trouble. The Times story is almost certainly wrong and the central part of the Ignatius "scoop" isn't a scoop at all. We'll start there.
David Ignatius, a reporter's columnist with excellent sources in the Obama administration and the intelligence community, reports: "Talking points" prepared by the CIA on Sept. 15, the same day that Rice taped three television appearances, support her description of the Sept 11 attack on the U.S. consulate as a reaction to the Arab anger about an anti-Muslim video prepared in the United States. According to the CIA account, "The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US consulate and subsequently into its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations."
There are two problems with this. The CIA "talking points" don't say that what Ignatius claims and the supposedly exculpatory documents were first reported three weeks ago.
On October 1, Newsweek's Eli Lake reported: "For eight days after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, government officials said the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam film. Now that officials have acknowledged they were a premeditated act of terrorism, the question some members of Congress are trying to answer is why it took so long for the truth to come out. Unclassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency suggest the answer may have to do with so-called talking points written by the CIA and distributed to members of Congress and other government officials, including Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the United Nations. The documents, distributed three days after the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, said the events were spontaneous."
Lake continued, quoting directly from the CIA talking points, in language that may sound familiar to anyone who read the third paragraph above: "The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the demonstrations." Both the Ignatius and Lake versions of the talking points note that the "assessment may change as additional information is collected" and that the "investigation is on-going."
Note that the "talking points" do not claim that the attackers in Benghazi were directly motivated by the film, something the Obama administration claimed for nearly two weeks after 9/11. The talking points only say that the "demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired" by Cairo.
We now know, of course, that there were no demonstrations in Benghazi. Those inside the compound heard gunfire at 9:40 p.m. local time and within minutes the compound was under siege. Surveillance photos and videos taken in the hours before the attack give no indication of a protest. And one CIA official tells Ignatius that it would have been better to substitute "opportunistic" for "spontaneous" since there was "some pre-coordination but minimal planning."
The "spontaneous" talking point came from an intercepted telephone call between jihadists, in which one of the attackers notes that his group had attacked after seeing the demonstrations in Cairo. U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence on Benghazi tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD there are two schools of thought on what that means. The first view is reflected in the administration's "spontaneous" line. It holds that jihadists in Benghazi saw the demonstration in Egypt and decided, almost on a whim, to assault the compound. But the nature of the attack—the weapons, the sequencing, the coordination—suggests more planning. The attackers flushed Americans from the compound toward an "annex" two kilometers away. As the Americans fled, they encountered (and avoided) an attempted ambush on the route.
The second view is that the demonstrations in Cairo, which followed the release of a video from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri on September 10, were seen as something of a "go signal." As we first reported on September 12, the film, in this view, was merely the pretext for an al Qaeda "information operation," and the Zawahiri video, which called directly for renewed jihad and for al Qaeda sympathizers to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al Libi, was intended to trigger protests and assaults throughout the region. Many of those with prominent roles in the protests and assaults—in Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps Libya—had strong ties to al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.
Not surprisingly, this view is not popular with an administration that has built its case for reelection in part on the notion that "bin Laden is dead" and "al Qaeda is on its heels." Which leads us to the claims in the Los Angeles Times article that ran under the heading: "No evidence found of al Qaeda role in Libya attack." That story begins: "The assault on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi last month appears to have been an opportunistic attack rather than a long-planned operation and intelligence agencies have found no evidence that it was ordered by al Qaeda, according to US officials and witnesses interviewed in Libya."
The claim in the headline is not the same as the claim in the article, of course. It's possible for there to have been "an Qaeda role" in the attack without it having been directly ordered by al Qaeda central. And there is, in fact, evidence of some al Qaeda role in the attack.
The same phone call that the administration had used to pin its argument that the attack was "spontaneous" also provides evidence of such al Qaeda involvement. Indeed, as Eli Lake reported three weeks ago: "In the hours following the 9/11 anniversary attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, US 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."
Several of the local jihadists were affiliated Ansar al Sharia, which has its own ties to al Qaeda. An August report from the Pentagon's "Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office," reported that Ansar al Sharia "has increasingly embodied al Qaeda's presence in Libya, as indicated by its active propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States." One of the leaders of AAS, a former Guantanamo detainee named Sufyan ben Qumu, has ties to senior al Qaeda leaders. As Tom Joscelyn first reported, Qumu's alias was found on the laptop of Mustafa al Hawsawi, an al Qaeda financier who helped fund the original 9/11 attacks. Qumu is described "as an al Qaeda member receiving family support."
The other group, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has a more direct relationship with al Qaeda central. As Joscelyn reported last month, AQIM entered into a "formal alliance" with al Qaeda in 2006, according to a United Nations report on the group. The Pentagon's Combating Terrorism study reported: "Al Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM are also benefiting from the situation in Libya. AQIM will likely join hands with the al Qaeda clandestine network in Libya to secure a supply of arms for its areas of operations in northern Mali and Algeria." The report also notes: "Although no information in open sources was found regarding the whereabouts of al Qaeda's leadership in Libya, it is likely that at this point al Qaeda's clandestine network is run directly by al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan."
One thing that has troubled both intelligence officials and those on Capitol Hill as they have evaluated the administration's early response to the attacks is what appears to be an effort to write al Qaeda out of the story. For example, the talking points first reported by Lake, include this sentence: "There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations." But according to several officials familiar with the original assessment from which the talking points were derived, the U.S. intelligence community had reported the fact that these were extremists with ties to al Qaeda. That key part was omitted.
Why was that language dropped from the talking points distributed to Congress and Obama administration officials? Did anyone at the White House or on the National Security Council have any role in drafting them?
In addition to the intercepts between Ansar al Sharia jihadists and AQIM, the Associated Press reported Friday that "the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington within hours of last month's deadly attack on the US consulate that there was evidence it was carried out by militants, not a spontaneous mob upset about an American-made video ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad."
As further evidence of the ever-shifting Obama administration narrative, the AP article, which ran some 24 hours before this latest public relations push, also reported: "The White House now says the attack was probably carried out by an al Qaeda-linked group, with no public demonstration beforehand."