The firestorm surrounding the story that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice told on Sunday morning talk shows five days after the attack on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi has drawn wildly different reactions around Washington. Bad data? Innocent mistake? Political deception? From the president’s staunch defense of Rice to John McCain’s repeated attacks, different people see different things. But, as a former CIA analyst, I’ve taken a separate lesson from the episode: The office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), created to facilitate interagency analysis and operations, has become a serious bureaucratic obstacle.
For a long time, the CIA ruled the intelligence cycle of collection, aggregation, analysis, and dissemination. But in 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended the United States unify the intelligence community. Thus, the DNI was born. Today, according to its website, the DNI “serves as the head of the Intelligence Community, overseeing and directing the implementation of the National Intelligence Program and acting as the principal advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to national security.” But, however noble and sensible the intent, the DNI has done very little to remedy the coordination issues — and Benghazi is a perfect example.
On September 16, Rice went on Meet the Press and stated, “Our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the [Innocence of Muslims] video.”
Rice has since publicly stated that there was an error in the intelligence she was given — there was not a protest at the facility in Benghazi. But the initial set of talking points from the CIA is said to have indicated that the attackers had links to al Qaeda. So why did she not mention that? A U.S. intelligence official has said, “The information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources, and could not be corroborated at the unclassified level; the links were tenuous and therefore it made sense to be cautious before naming perpetrators.” So was Rice just being prudent? It’s possible, though her performance was clumsy at best.
Photo: Esam Al-Fetori/REUTERS
I have no access to classified information from the CIA or DNI on Benghazi, but here’s what might have happened. On the eve of the attack, the analysts at the CIA are reading reports from regional embassies, watching news reports, and poring over cables from assets as the ridiculous anti-Islam YouTube video sparks protests across the region. As the attack in Benghazi ensues, they scramble to assess the situation and draft products for the various consumers — the most sensitive pieces go to select people at the White House, Pentagon, Office of the DNI, and National Security Council. If time allows, an alternative product is scrubbed of the most sensitive information for release across various parts of the U.S. government. In other words, the CIA may (or may not) have disseminated two different sets of talking points: one highly classified to protect sources and methods, and a second for broader dissemination.
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Nada Bakos is a former CIA analyst who served on the team charged with analyzing the relationship between Iraq, al Qaeda, and the 9/11 attacks. During the Iraq war, she was the chief targeting officer following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After 20 years in the intelligence field and corporate world, she is currently focused on national security issues, illicit networks, human trafficking, and regional stability.