Report: Benghazi Presence Was a CIA Operation

If you read one story today, let it be the game-changing article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

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If you read one paragraph today, let it be this, from the game-changing article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. effort in Benghazi was at its heart a CIA operation, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. Of the more than 30 American officials evacuated from Benghazi following the deadly assault, only seven worked for the State Department. Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate, these officials said.

Several things follow from that. First, it recasts the questions about security at the compound, which have focused on the State Department and the White House. Those questions include not only whether there was adequate American-led security at the consulate building but also who was responsible for local security and the extent of knowledge of the threat (a primary mission of the agency). In short, it casts the entire episode as a CIA problem rather than a State or White House problem. Says the Journal:

At one point during the consulate siege, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned the CIA director directly to seek assistance. Real-time intelligence from the field was scarce and some officials at State and the Pentagon were largely in the dark about the CIA’s role.

[Source-envy side note: for this nugget alone, the Journal reporters deserve respect. The hardworking Eli Lake has senior U.S. officials’ rebuttal here].

Second, it opens a window onto the politics of Benghazi. It is now clear that the White House had reasons for playing the fallout as mutely as it did. Having previously been accused of leaking classified information about the killing of Osama bin Laden for political purposes, it saw that exposing the covert side of the Benghazi operation to protect itself weeks before the election would be fraught with political risks.

Also, if there is one man in Washington the White House does not want to make an enemy of in the run-up to the election, it is retired General David Petraeus, now the head of the CIA. He is in a tricky spot at the agency: his predecessor, Leon Panetta, was an unlikely success, a former Hill overseer who boosted morale and persuaded the President to risk going after Osama bin Laden based on the agency’s hard work. By contrast, Petraeus has had a shaky start. (It doesn’t help that he is a former top-ranking Army military officer, as the agency has always deeply distrusted brasspace General Hayden, but the Air Force via the NSA doesn’t really count.)

Now some in the intelligence community are beginning to talk about the role their officers played in the chaos. Says a senior U.S. intelligence official:

The officers on the ground in Benghazi responded to the situation on the night of 11 and 12 September as quickly and as effectively as possible. The security officers in particular were genuine heroes.

And the official provides the following timeline:

–Around 9:40pm (local) the first call comes in to the Annex that the Mission is coming under attack.

–Fewer than 25 minutes later, a security team left the Annex for the Mission.

–Over the next 25 minutes, team members approach the compound, attempt to secure heavy weapons, and make their way onto the compound itself in the face of enemy fire.

–At 11:11pm, the requested ISR arrives over the Mission compound.

–By 11:30pm, all US personnel, except for the missing US Ambassador, depart the Mission. The exiting vehicles come under fire.

–Over the next roughly 90 minutes, the Annex receives sporadic small arms fire and RPG rounds; the security team returns fire, and the attackers disperse (approx 1am).

–At about the same time, a team of additional security personnel lands at the Benghazi airport, negotiates for transport into town, and upon learning the Ambassador was missing and that the situation at the Annex had calmed, focused on locating the Ambassador, and trying to secure information on the security situation at the hospital.

–Still pre-dawn timeframe, that team at the airport finally manages to secure transportation and armed escort and — having learned that the Ambassador was almost certainly dead and that the security situation at the hospital was uncertain — heads to the Annex to assist with the evacuation.

–They arrive with Libyan support at the Annex at 5:15am, just before the mortar rounds begin to hit the Annex. The two security officers were killed when they took direct mortar fire as they engaged the enemy. That attack lasted only 11 minutes then also dissipated.

–Less than an hour later, a heavily armed Libyan military unit arrived to help evacuate the compound of all US personnel.

The timeline is a useful reminder of how hairy things were on the ground in Benghazi and how hazardous it is for anyone to be assigning blame before all the facts come out. One wonders whether John McCain would like to take back his assertion on Face the Nation last Sunday that Obama’s handling of Benghazi was “the worst cover-up or incompetence I have ever observed in my life.”

A last observation on Petraeus. It is telling that the opening section of the Journal story, before it jumps to the history and details of the CIA operation in Benghazi, ends with the following:

Mr. Petraeus didn’t attend funerals held later for the two CIA contractors, irking some administration officials and CIA veterans.

After an attack in 2009 on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, one of the deadliest suffered by the agency, then-Director Leon Panetta immediately lifted the cover of the seven CIA officers and contractors killed, publicly acknowledged the agency’s loss and attended several of the funerals.

All in all, it is a tough day on the seventh floor of the agency. With four days until the election, all eyes will be on potential blowback against the White House, State or the Pentagon. For now, to the agency’s credit, the senior U.S. intelligence official is playing it very straight:

At every level in the chain of command, from the senior officers in Libya to the most senior officials in Washington, everyone was fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could.  There was no second guessing those decisions being made on the ground, by people at every US organization that could play a role in assisting those in danger.  There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.

The US military’s support was essential and much appreciated — it provided overhead ISR, tactical support sent to the scene from Tripoli, and MEDEVAC.