The CIA removed references to al Qaeda in the talking points it drafted for United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice in what critics say is part of a broad pattern of politicization of intelligence under the Obama administration.
Current and former intelligence and policy officials say that the politicization in the case of Benghazi appears to have involved policies that were designed to minimize the threat posed by Islamist terrorists in general and the al Qaeda terrorist group in particular prior to the Nov. 6 presidential election.
The CIA talking points are only one element of the investigation by both Congress and the executive branch into the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi by dozens of al Qaeda-linked terrorists from a group called Ansar al-Sharia.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice stated publicly for weeks after the attack that the raid that sacked the compound and a nearby CIA facility was the result of spontaneous protests against an anti-Muslim film.
However, former CIA director David Petraeus told House members that the attack was assessed from the very first intelligence reports to have been the work of al Qaeda terrorists. Petraeus testified in closed-door sessions of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that talking points prepared for public statements initially contained the references to al Qaeda but the references were later removed by officials who were not immediately identified to Congress.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the drafting of the talking points said the CIA deleted the information on al Qaeda but denied that politicization was a factor.
According to the senior intelligence official, there were several reasons for the changes. "The information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources and could not be corroborated at the unclassified level," the senior official said.
The official also said, "The links were tenuous and therefore it made sense to be cautious before naming perpetrators."
Additionally, the official said, "No one wanted to prejudice a criminal investigation in its earliest stages. … There was never any effort or intent to mislead or deceive."
"The points were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that this was an attack," this official said.
The official said "legitimate intelligence and legal issues" were considered for the talking points as in most cases when "explaining classified assessments publicly."
The CIA drafted the talking points and were based on what the agency believed at the time they were written, between Sept. 11 and Sept. 16 when Rice appeared on five Sunday television talk shows and insisted there was no terror attack.
CIA leaders reviewed the talking points and "coordinated" with other agencies at senior levels, the official said, noting that the final version was approved by all appropriate officials at CIA and throughout the government.
However, Kenneth E. deGraffenreid, a former White House and Pentagon intelligence official, said he believed the talking points were corrupted by political concerns, namely the upcoming presidential election and the need to play down an al Qaeda terror attack so close to it.
DeGraffenreid, who recently retired as a professor of intelligence policy at the Institute for World Politics, said the talking points on Benghazi are a symptom of a larger politicization within the intelligence community.
"It is part of a very, very bad trend of the broader politicization of the bureaucracy," deGraffenreid said. "American intelligence is hopelessly compromised by their politically correct politicization."
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer, also said politicization could have been a factor.
"It could be a case of gross politicization; it could be a case of CIA officials trying to be fastidious about characterizing Ansar al-Sharia—how affiliated is it with al Qaeda—and encouraged by a presidential narrative that downplays the potency of al Qaeda Islamic radicalism," Gerecht said.
Obama’s Sept. 24 speech to the United Nations was as inept as Rice’s television appearances, he added.
"They both could have been much more nuanced," Gerecht said. "They chose not to be. That wasn't bright. It was undoubtedly tendentious. It has obviously proved to be a political miscalculation."
Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration, said the talking points might have been the result of bad intelligence work, as both the White House and intelligence agencies are asserting.
Feith recalled how the Bush administration was criticized for lying or misrepresenting Iraq’s weapons capabilities when the policies were based on bad intelligence.
Similarly, there could be merit to the Obama administration’s claims that it was relying on the intelligence it was given when it misspoke about Benghazi being a spontaneous demonstration gone awry and not a terror attack.
However, Feith said there were several larger issues that relate to the politicization of intelligence surrounding the mishandling of the Benghazi attack.
"One is downplaying that it was a preplanned terror attack because they didn’t want to highlight terrorism because they wanted to claim the administration was succeeding against terrorism," he said.
Additionally, the administration, mainly through White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, a former CIA analyst, has played down or ignored the Islamist nature of jihadist terrorism, Feith said.
"That has had a really harmful strategic effect throughout the administration," he said, "because there is an Islamist extremist problem in the world."
"The terror problem is a subset of the Islamist extremism problem and you can’t deal with either if you’re not clear on the nature of the challenge," Feith said.
The Obama administration "instinctively" looks for American actions—not those of the attackers—that they can blame for attacks that U.S. enemies take against the United States, he said.
"That is the frame of mind that leads you to say ‘What did we do to provoke them?’ And that is exactly what they [the administration] did."
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo published an online statement Sept. 11 as crowds stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, most of them seeking freedom for the imprisoned Egyptian terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman.
The statement said: "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
The statement was later removed but was referring to an online video critical of Islam.
The narrative that an anti-Muslim video sparked the Cairo demonstrations and ultimately the Benghazi terror attack would remain the administration’s story for several weeks.
Finally, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put out a statement saying the attack was the work of terrorists.
DeGraffenreid, who has worked with many of the current intelligence officials implicated in the Benghazi scandal, said Clapper, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, has a long history of being prone to the corrupting influence of so-called intelligence "groupthink" that seeks to tell policymakers what they want to hear rather that providing critical analysis.
"One of the things he has always done is curry favor with the left," deGraffenreid said of Clapper.
"He’s the kind of guy that I’ve seen in government who on their own comes up with ways to say, ‘I’ll help the administration.’"
The politically correct demands imposed on intelligence analysts throughout government also factored into the mishandling of the Benghazi talking points.
DeGraffenreid said multiple government intelligence analysts have told him that analysts in several agencies are prohibited from mentioning Islam in relation to jihadism. Similar constraints are imposed on issues related to both China and Russia in an effort to avoid critical analysis of those states.
"And this is enforced," he said, adding that analysts who stray from the politically correct guidelines are punished.
Another problem, deGraffenreid said, is the current intelligence officials who waged covert political campaigns against the George W. Bush administration.
Additionally, government national security bureaucracies have become politicized for internal reasons. For example, the FBI is politicized in seeking to "protect the Bureau" from any criticism.
Feith said the current administration has adopted the policies first outlined by the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, who said the Democrats had become the party of "blame America first" critics.
"If you wanted to do a parody of ‘blame America first,’ you would have invented the response to Benghazi," he said.
A current U.S. intelligence official who is critical of CIA and other agencies regarding Benghazi said the mishandling of the affair is based on political and not security concerns.
The official disputed the CIA's claim of why it cut out the al Qaeda reference. "Saying it was generic al Qaeda or jihadists is not so specific that it compromises the investigation or intelligence sources and methods," the official said. "The Libyan president immediately confirmed that much." Using the term "extremists" instead was politicized as when the administration called the Fort Hood terrorist attack by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan "workplace violence" instead of terrorism, the official said.
Removing references to al Qaeda over concerns about an ongoing investigation is disingenuous, the official said.
"All knew it was al Qaeda," the official said, adding that the denial of al Qaeda links in the talking points "was a ploy designed by White House functionaries to conceal the bitter truth of Obama's gross errors prior to this country's most crucial presidential election."
"The American people deserve to know what the CIA, at the behest of the [National Security Council] and their ambassador were doing in conjunction with the Libyans, al Qaeda, the Turks, and the Syrians," the official said.
"The evidence points to their efforts not being in the interests of democratic Americans but instead being in the interest of al Qaeda and jihadists, on behalf of an American president who has proven to be overly sympathetic and helpful to jihadists, here in the United States and abroad."
The official said the administration is hiding the key facts surrounding the Benghazi attack. For example, the CIA so far has refused to provide congressional and other investigators with all operational documents relating to the mission in Libya and the CIA annex in Benghazi.