It was, from the start, about as hard an intelligence problem as you can find. The date was Sept. 11, and the CIA was stretched thin, monitoring anti-American protests in no fewer than 54 countries that day, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Post-Qaddafi Libya itself was still chaotic, caught up in the fog of war, and indeed Ambassador Chris Stevens, at great personal risk, had journeyed to his old Arab Spring-era stomping ground in Benghazi to assess the situation himself. Still, Clapper recently told an annual conference of intelligence professionals that there was no warning to Stevens or anyone else that he was about to be targeted by an organized extremist attack.
So in the ensuing days, the fog lifted only very gradually. The intelligence community did not see a clear way to explain the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans. And as the probe advanced they began shifting their assessment dramatically. Four days after the attacks, on Sept. 15, intel briefers sent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice off to tape the Sunday talk shows with talking points that suggested Stevens’s death was the result of “spontaneous” protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against a short film made in California lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. And that’s what Rice said on CBS’s Face the Nation “based on the best information we have to date,” as she put it. Rice added, however, that “soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that—in that effort with heavy weapons.”
“It was clear from the outset that a group of people gathered that evening. A key question early on was whether extremists took over a crowd or if the guys who showed up were all militants,” said an intelligence official involved in the Benghazi assessment. “It took time—until that next week—to sort through varied and sometimes conflicting accounts to understand the group’s overall composition.”
By the following week, however, the DNI came to believe that there had been no protest at all. “That was genuine fog of war issue,” the intelligence official said. “Press reports at the time indicated there had been. It took about a week or so to iron that out.” On Sept. 28, Shawn Turner, spokesman for Clapper’s office, said in a statement that as U.S. intelligence learned more about the attack, “we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
To supporters of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the chattering classes and in the House of Representatives, where an investigative committee has been hard at work probing the attacks and, apparently, leaking information, there is a lot more going on here. They see a deliberate effort by the Obama administration to play down evidence that new al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups were at work killing Americans. After all, one of the president’s big talking points in a tough election race is that he’s killed Osama bin Laden and decimated al-Qaida.
It sounds very plausible. There’s only one problem with that view: No evidence has surfaced so far to support the idea that the Obama administration deceived the public deliberately. On Wednesday a new spate of stories emerged, quoting unclassified e-mails sent to the White House and State Department only hours after the attacks that indicate the extremist Libyan militia Ansar al-Sharia had asserted responsibility. “Smoking gun!” Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger, tweeted. “The White House cover story—namely that CIA got it all wrong and the White House (in urging us to believe the murder of four Americans was the result of a video riot gone bad) was telling us what it knew, when it knew—has been severely undercut,” she added on her blog. “Three e-mails sent to the White House within two hours of the attack identify it as a terrorist operation and inform the White House that local jihadists with al-Qaida connections claimed responsibility.”
But that story doesn’t hold up well either. The e-mails in question contained nothing more than “raw” intelligence, uncorroborated and unverified, that often flows in after an event. Intelligence officials typically don’t deliver their assessments until they have “finished” reports based on multiple sources, and corroborated evidence, and Obama officials such as Rice certainly would not have been out in front of the TV cameras citing raw intelligence. And as the government’s most senior officials say, the Benghazi case has taken them a long time to finish. “People forget that a Palestinian group was the first to claim credit for 9/11,” the intelligence official said. “There was no message from the field in those first hectic days that would have eliminated questions or proven who was behind the attack.”
Indeed, as White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters, all that Wednesday’s stories reported was “an open-source, unclassified e-mail about a posting on a Facebook site. I would also note I think that within a few hours, that organization itself [Ansar al-Sharia] claimed that it had not been responsible.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in separate remarks on Wednesday, also said that “posting something on Facebook is not in and of itself evidence, and I think it just underscores how fluid the reporting was at the time and continued for some time to be.”
Even now, intelligence officials say, the full story is not known. It is not even clear that the video-inspired protests in Cairo were unrelated to the attack in Benghazi, because some of the extremists who attacked Stevens and his colleagues may have been provoked by watching the demonstrations on TV. Officials say they are still compiling a list of suspects.
"The bulk of available information still supports the early assessment that extremists—many with ties to Ansar al-Sharia, AQIM [Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb], or other groups—didn’t preplan the attack days or weeks in advance, but launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo,” the intelligence official said.
Interestingly, even Romney seems to have grown a bit tired of the Benghazi story, as he indicated on Monday night when moderator Bob Schieffer made Libya question No. 1 in his final debate with President Obama and the GOP nominee basically ignored it. Nonetheless, the story of what senior administration officials knew and when they knew it doesn’t seem to go away. Perhaps it will after Nov. 6.