DAVID IGNATIUS: The ways of D.C. on display


WASHINGTON – The hundred pages of Benghazi emails released last week tell us almost nothing about how four Americans came to die so tragically in that Libyan city. But they are a case study in why nothing works in Washington.

Rather than reading these messages for their substance on Benghazi (on which officials were still basically clueless three days after the attack), try perusing them as an illustration of how the bureaucracy responds to crisis – especially when officials know they will be under the media spotlight.

What you find is a 100-page novella of turf-battling and backside-covering.

No wonder that CIA Director David Petraeus, who began the exercise when he met with House intelligence committee members for coffee on the morning of Sept. 14, was unhappy with the effort. He complained that “this is certainly not what … [the committee] was hoping to get for unclas. use” and growled: “Frankly. I’d just as soon not use this.”

But in a typical Petraeus happy-talk sign off, he ended his message: “Regardless, thx for the great work.” What he should have said was: “This has been sanitized to the point of incoherence. Start over.”

The Benghazi emails have all been unclassified of course, but they reveal one of the true secrets of American national-security policy – which is its lumpy inefficacy.

Take a stroll with me through these memorably inane pages. CIA officials take turns patting each other on the back with comments such as “Good question,” “Good point.” And tellingly, from the very beginning, CIA officers are looking over their shoulders for what the lawyers will say. Then the cascade of bureaucratic log-rolling and pettifoggery begins, as each new agency is called to the trough.

By the time it’s over, the overcrowded editors’ desk will include the FBI, the Justice Department, and the NSA – in addition to many, many officials at the CIA, State Department and White House. At 8:40 p.m. Friday evening, when the scrubbing has been underway for hours, Jacob Sullivan, the wunderkind adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ventures (not unreasonably): “I do not understand the nature of the exercise.”

White House media wranglers sense trouble ahead. NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor warns “there is massive disinformation out there, in particular with Congress.” Senior press guru Ben Rhodes weighs in at 9:34 p.m. and warns of feeding “a ton of wrong information” and creating “a hardened misimpression.” Sorry, Ben, but I don’t think the counter-the-spin effort worked too well.

The final editor proves to be Michael Morell, the deputy director of the CIA, the next morning. He takes what started as six information-rich bullet points and whittles them down to an information-thin three points.

At the bottom of the stack of message traffickers is the office of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is appointed to deliver the talking points on the Sunday talk shows. And then, as we know, the Benghazi imbroglio really begins.

DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

David Ignatius