Benghazi, the CIA, Morell, the White House and politicizing intelligence

Benghazi, the CIA, Morell, the White House and politicizing intelligence

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WASHINGTON, May 15, 2014 — The select committee on Benghazi formed by House Speaker Boehner this week is unlikely to find solid evidence of administration wrong-doing. In particular, they are unlikely to find that the administration lied about the reason for the militant attack on the consulate and the CIA post on September 11, 2012.

Critics charge that the White House did lie about the cause of the Benghazi attack. The argument is that because President Obama had declared al-Qaeda “dead,” administration officials were unwilling to identify al-Qaeda as the group behind the attack. They accuse the administration of intentionally manipulating information to fit the “al-Qaeda is dead” narrative.

The administration insists it based its assertions about the attack on information from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has released portions of CIA information related to the Benghazi attack.

CIA talking points originally dated September 14, 2012, drafted at 11:14 a.m., claim that the attack was “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.” The CIA has provided evidence that through the 14 versions of these talking points, with the last version on September 15 at 11:36 a.m., this phrase never changed.

Then CIA deputy director Mike Morell testified to Congress that he was responsible for the talking points. In his testimony, Morell stated that he based the talking points on information from the Department of Defense and from CIA analysts.

Those talking points were repeatedly used by the Administration to explain the reason for the events of Benghazi.

Additional information shows that Morell was very much aware of contradictory information, but elected not to include it in talking points. This decision contradicts usual CIA reporting techniques, which often include alternative scenarios or notations about contradictory information.

The CIA Station Chief in Benghazi, one of the highest ranking CIA officers in-country, and other officials in Libya insisted that the attack was not the result of the video, but was a premeditated al-Qaeda attack. Eye witnesses at a café across the street reported seeing truckloads of armed militants arriving, and indicated there was no demonstration taking place at the consulate.

In his testimony to Congress, Morell stated that the Benghazi Station Chief contacted him directly three times during the week after the attack to explain why he believed it was a planned terrorist attack and not the result of a protest.

That station chief then sent an email on September 15, again explaining his rational.

Newly released emails show that CIA Director David Petraeus was also unsatisfied with the talking points. He noted, “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this,” and also expressed disappointed with the watered down version of the talking points.

Additional information suggests that Morell politicized information, making the intelligence fit at least what he believed was U.S. policy.

Unlike the Department of State, and contrary to general public opinion, the CIA is not a political organization. The job of every case officer and every analyst is to provide unbiased, objective information, regardless of U.S. policy. It is a mission CIA employees take seriously, and one they are proud of. Inside the intelligence community, CIA officers quietly hold themselves above other organizations because they are specifically not tied to policy and, therefore, believe their information is more accurate than information to those organizations affiliated with policies.

After CIA officers collect, analyze and disseminate information, policy makers decide how to use it. Decision makers, not intelligence officers, are responsible for making those decision.

To CIA employees, politicization is abhorrent. Internally, employees call it “cooking the books” and see it as cheapening the information. Many National Intelligence Estimate meetings become confrontational when employees of other organizations attempt to “smooth” CIA reporting to better match their own information or to avoid insulting a country or countering U.S. policy.

While the history of CIA information – not necessarily operations such as Bay of Pigs or Iran-Contra – is apolitical, there is precedence for high level CIA officers politicizing intelligence.

Robert Gates has faced numerous accusations of politicizing intelligence to conform with the desires of policymakers, which ultimately forced him to withdraw from consideration as head of the CIA the first time his name went forward. Although Gates has repeatedly denied these accusations, the rumors remain. In his book, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman wrote, “Gates consistently told his analysts to make sure never to ‘stick your finger in the eye of the policymaker.’”

Although Morell says politics played no role in his choice of how to present the information in the talking points, his own statements strongly suggest he twisted information. When asked about whether he removed the term “Islamist” before “extremist” in the talking points, Morell said:

“I took out the word Islamic in front of extremist and I took it out for two reasons. Most importantly I took out because we were dealing with protests and demonstrations across much of the Muslim world as a result of the video and the last thing I wanted to do was to was to do anything to further inflame those passions and so that’s why I took the word ‘Islamic’ out. It was a risk judgment. The second reason I took it out was — What other kind of extremists are there in Libya?”

Electing to remove information, any information, to avoid inflaming passions is changing the information to fit a desired outcome.

Morell also noted that the State Department had “deep concerns” about a reference to CIA warnings of extremist threats in Libya, fearing it would reflect badly on them. Morell removed that reference.

Again, any decision to change information to avoid “looking bad” is politicizing intelligence.

The Benghazi committee almost certainly will find that the Administration relied on the CIA talking points drafted by Morell to explain the reason for the attack on the consulate. While it will find discrepancies and questionable processes, the talking points will show that the White House relied on CIA information for its explanation of events.

The real question is what, or who, prompted Morell to willfully and intentionally go against CIA culture, ignore on-the-ground information and provide watered down talking points.

That is the question for the Select Committee.

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.