The battle over Benghazi

By Jack Shafer
November 2, 2012

When Washington bureaucracies rumble, they often avoid directly savaging one another by using the press as proxies. By leaking selectively to news outlets they believe will give them the most sympathetic hearing, they hope to shape the news by making it. The strategy doesn’t always work. Sock puppetry revolts good reporters and some bad ones, too, because they know carrying tainted water for a source today may stain their reputations tomorrow.

The Benghazi story hasn’t turned any reporters into absolute dummies—yet—but as the tag-team match of blame being played by the White House, the State Department, a congressional committee, and the CIA escalates–and with the Romney campaign eager to pounce on anything that makes the administration look bad–don’t be surprised if unnamed sources start spinning the facts in a self-serving manner.

You shouldn’t feel bad if you’re confused about Benghazi and have no idea who should be sacked for not doing his job: Press accounts and comments from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all congealed into one murky, confusing stew. Now, clarity has arrived in a new ultra-narrative given yesterday to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and others, sourced to a “senior administration official,” “senior intelligence officials,” “a senior American intelligence official,” “a senior U.S. intelligence official,” and “U.S. intelligence officials,” respectively.

It’s hard to believe these officials  are anyone other than CIA brass, something Ignatius’s column said quite literally when it was first posted with a headline reading, “CIA Offers Detailed Account of Attack in Libya.” Later, that headline was swapped out with the more generic “U.S. Offers Detailed Account of Attack in Libya,” as this screenshot tweeted by Jeremy Scahill attests.

In the time line put out by the CIA, the agency essentially takes the blame for the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11. But it also takes credit for the rescue of 30-plus other U.S. officials. The Journal reports:

The U.S. effort in Benghazi was at its heart a CIA operation, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. Of the more than 30 American officials evacuated from Benghazi following the deadly assault, only seven worked for the State Department. Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate, these officials said.

The CIA version attempts to extinguish the flaming Fox News account of Oct. 26, which accused agency superiors of preventing the rescue of Americans in Benghazi. The piece cites anonymous “sources who were on the ground in Benghazi” who say the “CIA chain of command” allegedly told “CIA operators twice to ‘stand down’ rather than help” the besieged ambassador and his team.

“There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support,” an anonymous official tells the Times.

In hogging the blame and the credit for the Benghazi defense, the CIA version slightly deflates the Republican-led congressional investigation of the attack, which has criticized the White House and the State Department for poor security planning in Benghazi. In hindsight, the dueling narratives about exactly what happened in Benghazi can now be attributed to alleged secret arrangements that the State Department made with the CIA for security in Benghazi, where the CIA was operating an “annex” near the public diplomatic mission,and the classified nature of the CIA’s work. (The CIA was chasing terrorists, as well as shoulder-fired missiles and other military gear liberated from Libyan Army arsenals.) This security arrangement wasn’t widely known outside of Libya, the Journal reports, with “many top officials at the State Department in Washington [not] initially aware that the annex had a security force that answered to the CIA and provided backup security for the consulate.”

By subtly accusing the State Department of its left hand not knowing what its right hand was doing, the CIA account invites a State Department counter-briefing of reporters that slags the CIA for its deficiencies. Will Secretary of State Clinton accept or decline? Another player in the Benghazi bureaucratic battle is the FBI, which is investigating the Benghazi attacks. The FBI has cause to be irate with the CIA because the agency delayed in turning over surveillance tapes for its investigation, the Journal reports. Meanwhile, the CIA is allegedly sore with the FBI for dallying before in giving it copies of FBI witness interviews.

The White House itself comes out relatively unscathed—and unmentioned—in today’s news stories. If you were the charitable sort, today’s accounts justify President Obama’s and his spokesmen’s disingenuous comments about the hows and whys of the attack as an attempt to provide cover for the CIA’s Libya secret operations. But surely somebody in the bureaucracy has a score to settle with them, too.

Every bureaucracy despises the other bureaucracies for the usual Machiavellian reasons: They are impediments and competition. When the uneasy peace between bureaucracies is upset, as with the Benghazi attacks, scores both new and old get settled on Page One with briefings, leaks, and interviews. The media battle of Benghazi has only begun.

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Leaks from all aggrieved Benghazi parties accepted at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and dispensed by my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

4 comments

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For an overview of all timelines and reports on Benghazi, check WeCheck’s Authoritative Benghazi Attack Timeline.

Posted by sparkzilla | Report as abusive

There is only one person that has legal authority over all of these agencies, and he is too busy out campaigning to actually do his job. All the groups made mistakes, but the failure now is in taking responsibility for fixing them.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

@sparkzilla: Thank you for the citation — looks interesting!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

It’s Benguzzle, and it is when college student guzzle beer at a Frat party and yell “Ben” each time they drink beer.
Please Reuters, try to get it right.
Ok?

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive