Talking Points

The Intel Behind Obama’s Libya Line

Why did it take eight days for the administration to acknowledge the 9/11 attacks in Benghazi were acts of terrorism? An unclassified briefing document provides new clues, writes Eli Lake.

Molly Riley-Pool / Getty Images

For eight days after the attacks on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, government officials said the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam film. Now that officials have acknowledged they were a premeditated act of terrorism, the question some members Congress are trying to answer is why it took so long for the truth to come out.

Unclassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency suggest the answer may have to do with so-called talking points written by the CIA and distributed to members of Congress and other government officials, including Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The documents, distributed three days after the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, said the events were spontaneous.

The talking points say, among other things, “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”

In addition, the briefing says this “assessment may change as additional information is collected” and that the “investigation is on-going.”

The theory that the attacks were spontaneous was echoed by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Sept. 14, just three days after the attacks, and again on Sept. 16 by Ambassador Rice. On Sept. 18, Carney said, “Based on information that we—our initial information, and that includes all information—we saw no evidence to back up claims by others that this was a preplanned or premeditated attack.”

The intelligence that helped inform those talking points—and what the U.S. public would ultimately be told—came in part from an intercept of a phone call between one of the alleged attackers and a middle manager from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s north African affiliate, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intercept. In the call, the alleged attacker said the locals went forward with the attack only after watching the riots that same day at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

However, the intercept was one of several monitored communications during and after the attacks between members of a local militia called Ansar al-Sharia and AQIM, which, taken together, suggest the assault was in fact a premeditated terrorist attack, according to U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials not authorized to talk to the press.

In one of the calls, for example, members of Ansar al-Sharia bragged about their successful attack against the American consulate and the U.S. ambassador.

It’s unclear why the talking points said the attacks were spontaneous and why they didn’t mention the possibility of al Qaeda involvement, given the content of the intercepts and the organizations the speakers were affiliated with. One U.S. intelligence officer said the widely distributed assessment was an example of “cherry picking,” or choosing one piece of intelligence and ignoring other pieces, to support a preferred thesis.

“Even if you push out that one piece of intelligence,” said this intelligence officer, “it is still in the context of a conversation between a group with an affinity to al Qaeda and a manager of an al-Qaeda affiliate. Why were we only hearing about how the attack was inspired and not about that?”

Rice, who declined to comment for this article, has come under fire from Republicans. Rep. Pete King, a Republican from New York and the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has called on Rice to resign for apparently misstating facts. Rice has said about her initial comments that she was providing “the best assessment the administration had at the time” and that an investigation was taking place. The CIA declined to comment.

Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said the initial assessment was not an example of cherry picking. “This was an intelligence community assessment based on the analysis of all the available information,” Vietor said. “There is no cherry picking if it was using the information you had at the time to make an informed judgment in good faith.”

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To date, the U.S. intelligence community has not said on the record and definitively that the attack was planned by al Qaeda. That determination is important. If the U.S. government concludes the 9/11 attack is the work of al Qaeda, then a military response is legally justified under the Sept. 14, 2001 resolution authorizing war against the organization.

On Friday, Shawn Turner, the spokesman for the director of national intelligence, released a statement saying the intelligence community had changed its assessment as more information came in: “There was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available.”

Politically, a coordinated Qaeda attack on the anniversary of 9/11 undermines a theme of President Obama’s reelection campaign that the killing of Osama bin Laden has diminished the threat from the group responsible for 9/11. Mary Habeck, who served on the National Security Council as an expert on al Qaeda in 2008 and 2009 said, “There is a debate occurring in the government about the status of al Qaeda. Is it a threat or not? Is the death of bin Laden the end of the group as a threat to the United States or is it not?”

Last week, The Daily Beast wrote about a Library of Congress report published in August and commissioned by an interagency research organization examining counterterrorism policy that said al Qaeda’s senior leadership “in Pakistan dispatched trusted senior operatives as emissaries and leaders who could supervise building a network. Al-Qaeda has established a core network in Libya, but it remains clandestine and refrains from using the al-Qaeda name.” The report also said Ansar al-Sharia has “increasingly embodied al-Qaeda’s presence in Libya.”