WASHINGTON — Even as Susan E. Rice took to the Sunday talk shows last month to describe the Obama administration’s assessment of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, intelligence analysts suspected that the explanation was outdated.
Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, has said that the judgments she offered on the five talk shows on Sept. 16 came from talking points prepared by the CIA, which reckoned that the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans had resulted from a spontaneous mob that was angry about an anti-Islamic video that had set off protests elsewhere. That assessment, described to Rice in briefings the day before her television appearances, was based on intercepted communications, informants’ tips and Libyan press reports, officials said.
Later that Sunday, though, U.S. intelligence analysts were already sifting through new field reports that seemed to contradict the initial assessment. It would be several days, however, before the intelligence agencies changed their formal assessment based on those new reports, and informed administration officials about the change. Intelligence officials say such a lag is typical of the ever-changing process of piecing together shards of information into a coherent picture fit for officials’ public statements.
Gov. Mitt Romney and congressional Republicans have sharply criticized Rice’s comments and the administration’s shifting public positions on the cause of the attack, criticisms that Romney will probably reprise in the final presidential debate on Monday night.
On Sunday, congressional Republicans cited the administration’s response to the attack as symptomatic of larger leadership failings.
“This is going to be a case study, studied for years, of a breakdown of national security at every level, failed presidential leadership — senior members of the Obama administration failed miserably,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The gap between the talking points prepared for Rice and the contemporaneous field reports that seemed to paint a much different picture illustrates how the process of turning raw field reports, which officials say need to be vetted and assessed, into polished intelligence assessments can take days, long enough to make them outdated by the time senior U.S. officials utter them.
Intelligence officials, alarmed that their work has been turned into a political football, defend their approach, noting that senior administration officials receive daily briefings that reflect the consensus of the nation’s array of intelligence agencies, but can also dip into the fast-moving stream of field reports, with the caveat that that information is incomplete and may be flat wrong.
“A demand for an explanation that is quick, definite and unchanging reflects a naive expectation — or in the present case, irresponsible politicking,” James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said at an intelligence symposium on Oct. 9.
The Associated Press reported Friday, for instance, that within 24 hours of the attack, the CIA’s station chief in Tripoli, Libya, e-mailed headquarters that witnesses said the assault was mounted by heavily armed militants. But intelligence officials said Sunday that one report was not enough to establish the attack’s nature.
According to interviews with a half-dozen U.S. officials, including policymakers and intelligence officials, here is a rough chronology of what happened, some details of which The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
On Sept. 13, Rice and other Cabinet-level officials were told about the assessment that there had been protests at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
“The first briefing was exactly as one would expect in the early aftermath of a crisis,” a U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the continuing FBI investigation into the assault. “It carefully laid out the full range of sparsely available information, relying on the best analysis available at the time.”
Briefers said extremists were involved in attacks that appeared spontaneous.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, Rice summed up a common theme she voiced on all five television programs: “What this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what happened, transpired in Cairo,” where protesters angered by the video invaded the grounds of the U.S. Embassy.
Critics say Rice overlooked that al-Qaida might have been involved. But when asked by Bob Schieffer of CBS News about al-Qaida’s possible role, Rice said, “It’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined and escalated the violence. Whether they were al-Qaida affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al-Qaida itself, I think, is one of the things we’ll have to determine.”
The unclassified talking points were written by the CIA with input from other intelligence agencies so that members of Congress and senior officials could say something preliminary about the attacks; the points would be expected to be somewhat cautious, U.S. officials said.
“The points clearly reflect the early indications of extremist involvement in a direct assault,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “It wasn’t until after the points were used in public that people reconciled contradictory information and assessed there probably wasn’t a protest around the time of the attack.”
That change in the intelligence community’s assessment did not happen until a series of reviews from Sept. 20 to 22, a U.S. official said Sunday. Some of the new information came from U.S. officials evacuated from Benghazi on Sept. 12.
The U.S. intelligence official said it took time to determine “whether extremists took over a crowd, or if the guys who showed up were all militants.”
Clapper, the director of national intelligence, approved the release of an unusual public statement on Sept. 28 about the evolving intelligence conclusions. His spokesman, Shawn Turner, said then that analysts had revised their assessments “to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
By the end of last week, intelligence officials settled into a new position that they had been suggesting for several days. U.S. officials cautioned that it, too, could change as more information becomes available.
“Right now, there isn’t any intelligence that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance,” said the intelligence official. “The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.”