Getting mad about Benghazi

Getting mad about Benghazi

I am finally mad about Benghazi.

I’ve been willing to cut the Obama administration a lot of slack because, as a former CIA analyst and NSC director, I’ve been in the exact situation they were in on the day of the attacks. Something dramatic happens — an explosion or an assassination — the higher-ups expect to know every detail instantaneously, and a mad scramble ensues to find any little scrap of information to satisfy the demand for data. In the madness, the typical standards for vetting information are bypassed. That’s how policymakers end up running around for a day or two after a crisis reading — and repeating — inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information.

Even if there were a few reports from the intelligence community saying the attack was a terrorist attack, I am sure there were other reports saying it was a mob attack. Policymakers will inevitably choose to believe whatever piece of evidence confirms their preexisting conclusions and prejudices. The Obama administration, eager to continue the narrative that al Qaeda is on the verge of "strategic defeat" and that the "tide of war is receding," would naturally have chosen to believe the mob attack theory, especially if they got a few reports saying so. And once you make a judgment, it becomes extremely difficult to revise it in light of new information. While wrong, that’s only human.

But former Director David Petraeus reportedly testified to Congress that the CIA’s original talking points explicitly mentioned al Qaeda involvement in the attack but were changed by unknown officials to delete references to al Qaeda. If true, the administration’s failure to acknowledge the attack as a terrorist strike is no longer an understandable cognitive failing; it is the blatant politicizing of intelligence. Someone changed Congressional testimony to sound more favorable to the Obama administration’s preferred narrative.

To be clear, I think it is more likely that the person responsible is an official in the intelligence community than the White House or policy community. Talking points for an intelligence official briefing Congress would go through intelligence channels, probably through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), not through the White House.

That does not lessen the charge of politicization. The intelligence community, ever sensitive to its precarious relationship to its consumers in the policy community, can sometimes censor itself for fear of offending a policymaker with bad news or with a judgment that policymakers could interpret as a criticism of policy. The fault lies with the intelligence community for caving in and showing no spine, but also with the policymakers for allowing or encouraging a culture of censorship and politicization.

This is exactly the same charge that Democrats launched against the Bush administration for the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A later Senate investigation found absolutely no evidence that the White House fabricated intelligence, but that didn’t stop Democrats from accusing Bush and Cheney of pressuring the intelligence community and encouraging a culture of sloppy analysis by loudly repeating their preferred narrative.

If the CIA judged al Qaeda affiliates were involved in the Benghazi attack and some other official (probably in the ODNI) deleted the reference, it was likely because the official knew the Obama administration preferred the narrative that al Qaeda was nearing strategic defeat and the tide of war was receding.

The narrative is wrong, and we should allow for the other side to make its own judgments and get them wrong — we make mistakes too. The troubling thing is that the Obama administration has apparently insisted on their narrative so much, so loudly, and so vociferously that analysts in the intelligence community no longer feel able to state simple facts that contradict the narrative. Apparently the White House is so inflexible about this position that simply stating a fact like "al Qaeda was involved in the Benghazi attack" would be enough for an analyst to feel that he would lose credibility with and access to the president.

Such intellectual inflexibility and dogmatism is dangerous in the White House. Policymakers should be ever watchful lest they fall prey to group think and bias confirmation. The bubble of power is so insular that the president and his advisors need to work consciously to get out of it and seek out dissenting opinions. That is part of how Bush was able to make the decision for the Iraq Surge against the collective advice of the Joint Chiefs, Congressional leaders, and most others. The Obama administration, apparently, hasn’t learned this lesson yet.