DAVID IGNATIUS: The foreign policy dispute

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – The Romney campaign may have misfired in its suggestion that statements by President Obama and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice about the Benghazi attack last month weren’t supported by intelligence, according to documents provided by a senior U.S. intelligence official.
“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 consulate as a reaction to Arab anger about an anti-Muslim video prepared in the U.S. According to the CIA account, “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
The CIA document went on: “This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.” This may sound like self-protective boilerplate, but it reflects the analysts’ genuine problem interpreting fragments of intercepted conversation, video surveillance and source reports.
The senior intelligence official said the analysts’ judgment was based in part on monitoring of some of the Benghazi attackers, which showed they had been watching the Cairo protests live on television and talking about them before they assaulted the consulate facility.
“We believe the timing of the attack was influenced by events in Cairo,” the senior official said, reaffirming the Cairo-Benghazi link. He said that judgment is repeated in a new intelligence community report prepared this week for the House Intelligence Committee.
Here’s how the senior official described the jumble of events in Benghazi that day: “The attackers were disorganized; some seemed more interested in looting. Some who claimed to have participated joined the attack as it began or after it was under way. There is no evidence of rehearsals, they never got into the safe room … never took any hostages, didn’t bring explosives to blow the safe room door, and didn’t use a car bomb to blow the gates.”
The Benghazi flap is the sort of situation that intelligence officers dread – when politicians are demanding hard “yes” or “no” answers but evidence is fragmentary and conflicting. The political debate has focused on whether the attack was spontaneous or planned, but the senior official said there’s evidence of both, and that different attackers may have had different motivations. There’s no dispute, however, that it was “an act of terror,” as Obama described it the next day.
“It was a flash mob with weapons,” is how the senior official described the attackers. The mob included members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia, about four members of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, and members of the Egypt-based Muhammad Jamal network, along with other unarmed looters.
The official said the only major change he would make now in the CIA’s Sept. 15 talking points would be to drop the word “spontaneous” and substitute “opportunistic.” He explained that there apparently was “some pre-coordination but minimal planning.”
The intelligence community obviously feels burned by having its tentative assessments become a political football in this campaign and, in truth, one obvious lesson is that the U.S. could use much better real-time intelligence from places such as Libya.
A memo prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center on Sept. 14 illustrates the fragmentary nature of the evidence: “As time progresses, we are learning more, but we still don’t have a complete picture of what happened,” noted the NCTC analysts. “At this point, we are not aware of any actionable intelligence that this attack was planned or imminent. … We are very cautious about drawing any firm conclusions at this point with regard to identification and motivation of the attackers.”
The analysts seem confident that al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, played no direct role in the Benghazi events, even though he called on Sept. 10 for revenge attacks against the U.S. “He’s not a manager, he’s not a planner, he’s not an operator. He’s a theologian, and that doesn’t have much resonance now. He’s almost irrelevant, he’s so concerned about his security, so hunkered down,” said the senior official.
Ironically, the Sept. 15 talking points that were the basis for Rice’s televised comments were requested by the House Intelligence Committee. Ideally, the congressional oversight committees would provide bipartisan support for intelligence officials who are probing the Benghazi attack. But in the heat of the final pre-election weeks, the murky details of what happened in Libya have instead become political assault weapons.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.