Weeks before the presidential election, President Barack Obama’s administration faces mounting opposition from within the ranks of U.S. intelligence agencies over what career officers say is a “cover up” of intelligence information about terrorism in North Africa.
Intelligence held back from senior officials and the public includes numerous classified reports revealing clear Iranian support for jihadists throughout the tumultuous North Africa and Middle East region, as well as notably widespread al Qaeda penetration into Egypt and Libya in the months before the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
“The Iranian strategy is two-fold: upping the ante for the Obama administration's economic sanctions against Iran and perceived cyber operations against Iran's nuclear weapons program by conducting terror attacks on soft U.S. targets and cyber attacks against U.S. financial interests,” said one official, speaking confidentially.
The Iranian effort also seeks to take the international community's spotlight off Iran’s support for its Syrian ally.
Two House Republicans, Reps. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), stated in a letter sent this week to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that officials “with direct knowledge of events in Libya” revealed that the Benghazi attack was part of a string of terror attacks and not a spontaneous uprising against an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. The lawmakers have scheduled congressional hearings for Oct. 10.
Susan Phalen, spokeswoman for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), said the panel is “reviewing all relevant intelligence and the actions of the [intelligence community], as would be expected of the oversight committee.”
But she noted: “At this point in time it does not appear that there was an intelligence failure.”
Intelligence officials pointed to the statement issued Sept. 28 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that raised additional concern about the administration’s apparent mishandling of intelligence. The ODNI statement said that “in the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo.”
Officials say the ODNI’s false information was either knowingly disseminated or was directed to be put out by senior policy officials for political reasons, since the statement was contradicted by numerous intelligence reports at the time of the attack indicating it was al Qaeda-related terrorism.
Among the obvious signs of terrorism was the arms used by the attackers, who were equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.
A U.S. intelligence official who disputes the idea of an Obama administration coverup said: “Intelligence professionals follow the information wherever it leads.”
“When there isn’t definitive information, it makes sense to be cautious,” the official said. “There has never been a dogmatic approach to analyzing what happened in Benghazi. Staying open to alternative explanations—and continually refining assessments as new and credible information surfaces—is part of the intelligence business.”
Officials with access to intelligence reports, based on both technical spying and human agents, said specific reporting revealed an alarming surge in clandestine al Qaeda activity months before the attack in Benghazi.
Yet the Obama administration sought to keep the information from becoming public to avoid exposing what the officials say is a Middle East policy failure by Obama.
Officials said that the administration appeared to engage in a disinformation campaign aimed at distancing the president personally during the peak of the presidential election campaign from the disaster in Benghazi, where numerous warning of an attack were ignored, resulting in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other officials.
The first part of the apparent campaign, officials said, was the false information provided to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who appeared on Sunday television shows after the attack to say the event was a “spontaneous” response to an anti-Muslim video trailer posted online.
Officials said Rice was given the false information to use in media appearances in order to promote the excuse that the obscure video was the cause of the attack, and not the Islamic concept of jihad.
Rice’s claims provoked concern inside the U.S. intelligence community that intelligence about what was going on in Libya and the region was being suppressed, and led to a series of news disclosures about what would later be confirmed as an al Qaeda attack using the group Ansar al Sharia.
After Rice’s incorrect statements, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney repeated the false assessment of the Benghazi attack.
The final element of the campaign involved comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was the first to give a partial explanation of the intelligence when she said al Qaeda terrorists operating from Mali were possible culprits in the Benghazi attack.
“What she failed to mention was the cooperation of Iran and Egypt in supporting jihadists in Libya,” the official said, who added the events would be investigated in an apparent effort to stave off internal critics in government.
That has led to delays in getting FBI and other U.S. investigators into Benghazi, raising concerns that some in the White House wanted to delay the FBI’s efforts to uncover evidence about the attack.
The FBI did not reach Benghazi until Thursday, ostensibly over concerns about the lack of security to protect them.
“The Obama Administration is afraid to admit al Qaeda is running rampant throughout the region because it would expose the truth instead of what President Obama so pompously spouted during the Democratic Convention” said the official.
The president said during his nomination acceptance speech that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” an assertion contradicted by the group's rise in the region.
The administration, in particular, wants to keep hidden solid intelligence showing that the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans is now flourishing under the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt was among the locations of Obama’s 2009 so-called “apology” tour, when the president criticized past U.S. policies based on what he said was “fear and anger” that prompted actions “contrary to our ideals.” He also promised “a new beginning” for the U.S. and the world’s Muslims and a radical shift in U.S. policy.
The rise of Islamists in the region instead has produced a surge in anti-American protests and riots, culminating in the terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate.
Recent intelligence reports show that Egypt’s Al-Azhar University in Cairo is emerging as a covert base for al Qaeda organizational and training activities for a jihadi network consisting of many nationalities.
The Morsi government has turned a blind eye to both the increased jihadist activity and Iran’s support for it in the region, particularly in Libya and Syria.
However, the administration is keeping the intelligence under wraps to avoid highlighting Obama's culpability for the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring being hijacked by Islamists sympathetic to al Qaeda’s terrorist ideology.
Intelligence officials said in Egypt—currently ruled by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood—one of the key al Qaeda organizers has been identified as Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Muhammad al-Zawahiri was released by Morsi in March after having been sentenced to death for terrorist acts in Egypt.
In recent months Egypt-based al Qaeda terrorists were dispatched to Libya and Syria, where they have been covertly infiltrating Libyan militia groups and Syrian opposition forces opposing the Bashar al Assad regime.
In addition to Egyptian government backing, intelligence from the region has revealed that operatives from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the main spy service, and from Iran’s Quds Force paramilitary group and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are also facilitating al Qaeda terrorists based in Egypt that are preparing to conduct operations to increase instability throughout the region.
The intelligence revealing that al Qaeda is growing in Egypt is said by officials to be one of the reasons behind Obama’s decision to cancel a meeting in New York with Morsi during the U.N. General Assembly meeting last month.
Other news outlets in recent days have revealed new internal U.S. government information that contrasts sharply or contradicts official Obama administration statements that appear designed to minimize the rise of Egyptian-origin terrorism.
The Daily Beast reported Sept. 28 that intercepted communications revealed terrorists belonging to the group Ansar al Sharia were in contact with the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb regarding the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and others.
Communications intercepts revealed that the terrorists in Benghazi bragged about the attack, the news outlet reported.
A group called Ansar al Sharia in Egypt was formed in April 2011 and advocates violent jihad and support for al Qaeda.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that terrorists linked to a former Guantanamo prison inmate, Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, was one of the individuals who attacked diplomatic facilities in Libya on Sept. 11, and that intelligence reports showed some of the terrorists in the attack may have been trained in Libyan desert camps.