Illustration by David Gibson
Illustration by David Gibson

Many conservatives suspect that the U.S. State Department, with the White House in a supporting role, deceived the public about the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. This conspiratorial narrative is, in all probability, false.

Even the embarrassing “Cairo-demonstrations-killed-us-in-Benghazi” messages by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and President Barack Obama -- hers on Sunday talk shows and his before the UN -- partly sprang from the Central Intelligence Agency’s analytical missteps and from the slow and often-purblind way that Washington works.

To get to the heart of this controversy, a thoughtful observer should first ask much tougher questions of the CIA and especially of David Petraeus, its former director.

The first question should be about why the CIA’s first draft of its now-infamous talking points stated: “We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo.” We know from Gregory Hicks -- the former deputy chief of mission in Tripoli -- that diplomats sent no telegram suggesting a connection between Cairo and Benghazi.

Hicks knew, as did others at the State Department, that the attack was planned, coordinated and well-armed, and that it wasn’t preceded by demonstrations. CIA officers, who were in Libya in large numbers, knew likewise. So how did someone in Langley, Virginia, several thousand miles away, conclude that something was dubious from the start?

Three Explanations

There are three possibilities.

First, Petraeus and other CIA officials had absorbed too much of the speculation on Twitter, and on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, pinpointing an anti-Muslim YouTube video as the cause of demonstrations in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. It’s also likely that officials in Langley received lots of intelligence reports -- after the attack -- that reinforced the view that Cairo’s heat sparked Benghazi’s fire.

The intelligence from the agency’s clandestine service, through its own sources and foreign liaison channels, has a way of highlighting the wisdom du jour. This isn’t tendentious; it’s just the way human nature plays out in the intelligence business. Cairo’s frenzy just bled into Washington’s analysis of Libya.

A second possibility is that Petraeus pre-empted his analysis because he knew Obama would be happier with the YouTube narrative than with the truth that an al-Qaeda affiliate had planned the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. This shading can happen subtly in the executive branch, to the extent that officials aren’t conscious that they are doing it. This is “group think,” and it’s hardly unique to the CIA.

The third possibility is a combination of the first and second explanations.

It is a good guess that the first is what happened, and then the rest is history. The administration was destined to run into a buzz saw of criticism, even from thoughtful conservatives, who had grown tired of Obama’s self-preening as the counterterrorist president and of his intellectual lameness in describing Islamic radicalism without reference to Islam.

It isn’t surprising, though it is distressing, that Rice so easily repeated the mistakes of CIA officials. For those who have worked in the classified foreign-policy part of Washington, and especially for those who have served in the CIA, it can be hard to believe how intelligent people, in both the executive branch and Congress, can be deferential to CIA-provided information. They don’t like to gainsay it even when they are pretty sure that it’s unreliable. While Rice was too deferential to the preferences of her boss, she was bushwhacked by the CIA.

Agency Backpedaling

And it must have been particularly galling to the State Department to see the CIA, in its talking points, refer to its earlier warnings about militants in Libya. A real terrorist warning, which the CIA rarely issues, relates to an imminent attack in a certain place within a reasonably short time frame. It was truly audacious, even by the agency’s high standards for protecting itself, to merely list well-known terrorist incidents in Libya and refer to what was on the jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia’s Facebook page, while mentioning how dutifully the CIA reported, on Sept. 10, the possible threats inside Egypt, where local social media could react to the warnings.

The incorporation of this list into the talking points camouflages and pre-empts the real question: Why didn’t the CIA, with its large presence in Libya, have more tactical intelligence on the situation in Benghazi that a diplomatic security officer could actually use? Or another more appropriate question now: Why hasn’t the agency done a better job of catching those who killed an American ambassador?

The State Department was obviously negligent with its security procedures in Benghazi, and people who haven’t been punished probably should be. It’s quite clear now, and was quite clear to working-level diplomatic security officers in Libya and in the department before the attack, that more security was needed. The State Department’s professional security cadre considers the use of inexpensive local-guard forces for primary defense in most violent or unfriendly countries to be hopelessly ineffective. American staff, and the Western and Gurkha contractors that the State Department regularly deploys, are the only serious forces that can be used to repel well-armed jihadis.

The undersecretary of state for management is responsible for these matters. Did Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy turn down security-reinforcement requests from American officials in Libya? Did he discuss issues with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?

And the Pentagon’s lackadaisical response to sending reinforcements and air support -- and its excuses later that it was too dangerous and too politically complicated -- really should elicit more scorn. If the diplomats and spies had been U.S. soldiers, the Pentagon surely would have been more forthcoming.

Blaming Bureaucrats

The CIA’s deputy director, Michael Morell, should be praised for realizing that something was inappropriate about the agency’s parading of a list of its achievements. Cutting that commentary from the talking points revealed professionalism and a decent respect for the truth.

For those who have never been involved with the government’s interagency discussions, it’s hard to appreciate how the results inevitably lack substance. National-intelligence estimates, the intelligence community’s crown jewels, are mind-numbing consensus-based deliberations. Personal biases, institutional equities and political spin are always thrown into the mix. When bureaucrats honestly exchange their views, the lowest common denominator usually triumphs. However, the interagency process is always much more bureaucratic than it is political.

If the U.S. conservatives really want to fight over Benghazi, they should turn their attention from the talking points to the president’s “light footprint” approach to the Muslim world, a strategy that had lethal ramifications in Libya. But that would be a harder battle because so many Republicans have grown tired of the Middle East and, just like the president, want to pivot to just about anyplace else.

(Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former officer in the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Reuel Marc Gerecht at reuel@defenddemocracy.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.