How pure were the CIA's motives: For our money, David Brooks authored one of the most useful presentations about Benghazi on yesterday’s talking-head programs.
In the statement which follows, Brooks challenged an emerging claim about the way the now-famous “talking points” were developed.
How were those talking-points developed? According to an emerging portrait, the CIA had all the wisdom and all the knowledge about the events at Benghazi. Then, a group of meddlesome, politicized agencies messed up the CIA’s work.
According to Brooks, that pretty much isn’t what happened. Speaking on Meet the Press, he painted a more complex picture, in which the CIA itself had political motives:
BROOKS (5/12/13): There’s an underlying narrative here which I actually think is wrong. The underlying narrative is that the CIA is this bunch of technically pure, non-political people and then they produce a product which is then doctored by a bunch of political people either at State or at the White House.In Brooks’ account, the CIA’s original proposed talking points were already a politicized document. The agency was involved in heavy blame-shifting, Brooks says. In Brooks’ view, we shouldn’t create a simplistic tale in which the CIA’s motives were pure and that the other agencies were politicized.
My reading of the evidence is that a very terrible event happened at a CIA, basically a CIA facility. They went into intense blame-shifting mood, trying to shift responsibility onto the State Department, onto anywhere else. And the State Department pushed back. They said “No, it’s not our fault, it was your facility.” And so they pushed back and they said, “Why are we suddenly releasing information that we haven’t been releasing so far?”
So the CIA was super-aggressive. There was some pushback. Out of that bureaucratic struggle, all the talking points were reduced to mush and then politics was inserted into it. So I don’t think we should necessarily say this is politics intruding on a CIA pure operation.
Brooks attributed political motives to CIA right from the start. He almost seemed to say that the State Department may have provided a service in pushing back against some of the CIA’s suggestions.
Brooks said the CIA was political. We will ask a different question: How smart were the CIA’s original talking points? Is it possible that other agencies were right to push back because the CIA’s points were just dumb?
Is the CIA smarter than a fourth-grader? According to ABC News, there were at least twelve versions of the talking-points in the days before Rice appeared on those Sunday TV programs.
According to ABC’s chronology, these are the first three paragraphs from the agency’s original proposed talking-points. The highlighted paragraph strikes us as very dumb, for two different reasons:
ORIGINAL CIA TALKING POINTS (9/14/12, 11:15 AM): We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex.Forget the agency’s possible politicization. How about the CIA’s smarts? In the passage we’ve highlighted, the CIA proposed the naming of a particular group, Ansar al-Sharia, based on “initial press reports.”
The crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society. That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.
Initial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia. The group has since released a statement that its leadership did not order the attacks, but it did not deny that some of its members were involved.
That strikes us as amazingly dumb. Imagine Rice saying this on worldwide television:
IMAGINING RICE ON THE SUNDAY SHOWS: We’re not sure who staged the attack. But I read in some press reports that it was Ansar al-Sharia.That would have been extremely dumb. But that's what Rice would have been saying, had she been working from the original CIA points.
Beyond that, Ansar al-Sharia actually had “denied that any of the group's fighters had participated,” according to later New York Times reporting. According to the Times, the group’s spokesman had issued that blanket denial on Thursday night, September 13.
Perhaps that later report by the Times was wrong. But are you sure the Times got it wrong and the CIA had this point right?
Just how smart is the CIA? That reliance on “initial press reports” strikes us as borderline goofy. But by that afternoon, the agency had added some of the self-serving material to which Brooks seemed to refer.
Yes, the material was self-serving. It was also so ham-handed as to raise our question about the agency’s basic smarts:
CIA TALKING POINTS (9/14/12, 5:09 PM): The current available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were inspired by the protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex. This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed. On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the [Cairo] Embassy and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.The highlighted passage may be seen as self-serving, therefore political. We suggest another viewpoint. That highlighted statement is ham-handed to the point of being strikingly dumb.
Who was political? Who was pure? We can’t answer that question for you. For that reason, we don’t mean to impugn the integrity of any of these agencies.
But in our view, some of the CIA’s work was just flat-out rather dumb. Other agencies should have challenged those parts of the agency's proposals.
In our view, Brooks made a very good point on Meet the Press. All the purity—and all the smarts—weren't in the CIA camp. People are going to pimp it that way for their own political reasons.