Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

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 ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

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.

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.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.