Engaging in some pre-nomination diplomacy, Susan Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell sat down this morning with Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte, hoping to clear the air on the Benghazi attack. How’d it go? Not well.
For those who can’t watch clips online, Graham told reporters, “Bottom line: I’m more disturbed now than I was before.” He added, in reference to the intelligence community’s talking points written just four days after the attack, “I think it does not do justice to the reality at the time and in hindsight clearly was completely wrong. But here’s the key, in real time, it was a statement disconnected from reality.”
Let’s unpack this a bit, because it’s awfully difficult to take Graham’s complaining seriously.
When Rice appeared on Sunday shows the week of the attack, she explained that it was too early to draw “definitive conclusions,” but the “best information we have to date” suggested the violence “began spontaneously … as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo” in response to the anti-Islam internet video.
The ambassador then added, “But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons.” Asked about a possible al Qaeda role, Rice said this was unclear, explaining, “I think this is one of the things we’ll have to determine.”
Why did she make these comments? Because the CIA prepared talking points, reflecting the combined judgment of the intelligence community, which told her and others this was the best available information. Rice stuck closely to the CIA materials, and embellished nothing.
What Graham argued this morning, in effect, is that Rice shouldn’t have believed the intelligence community – indeed, he thinks the intelligence community shouldn’t have believed the intelligence community – and everyone involved had all of the knowledge they needed four days after the attack to understand exactly what happened.
What’s more, this may be inconvenient timing for such details, but for all of Graham’s huffing and puffing about the intelligence being “completely wrong” and “disconnected from reality,” maybe now is a good time to point out that the talking points have actually stood up pretty well. We know more now than we did two months ago about the events in Benghazi, but the week of the attack, the intelligence community said the anti-Muslim video helped lead to violence, the attack was hardly planned out well in advance, and extremists seized an opportunity, exacerbated by inadequate consulate security.
And do we know now? As Joe Klein explained:
There were two attacks in Benghazi that night. The first was a spontaneous response to the anti-Islamic film that had caused similar protests in Cairo and elsewhere. That is important: there would have been no terrorist attack if the film hadn’t provided the opportunity for mayhem. Most of the protesters were members of local salafist militias, who quickly realized that the security at the consulate was nearly nonexistent. They organized a second attack with heavier weapons, including mortars. And so we have four essential facts that do not contradict one another:
1. the attack was a spontaneous reaction to the film
2. it was followed by an organized attack.
3. both attacks were populated and organized by terrorist militias, with loose ties to Al-Qaeda.
4. security at the consulate was inadequate
In other words, what the CIA told Rice and other officials four days after the attack looks pretty accurate with the benefit of hindsight.
So what is Graham so “disturbed” about?