White House blames intelligence agencies for Benghazi confusion

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Administration officials are now blaming the nation’s intelligence agencies for the administration’s week-long campaign to blame a little-known YouTube video for the lethal Sept. 11 Benghazi attack.

Officials’ statements about the video’s contribution to the attack were based on judgments “made by the intelligence community,” Jay Carney, President Barack Obama’s press secretary, said Oct. 10. “We provided the information we had [from the agencies], and we made clear it was preliminary,” Carney insisted.

Carney repeatedly declined to explain the White House’s response to the attack, or its security measures taken prior to the attack, saying he could not comment until the completion of an administration investigation.

The finger-pointing came one day after State Department officials admitted there was no local anti-video protest in Benghazi prior to the surprise jihadi attack on the embassy that killed the ambassador, a civil servant and two former soldiers.

During the press conference, Carney tried to downplay the president’s repeated portrayal of the attack as a spontaneous response to the little-known video that is sharply critical of Islam’s reputed founder and prophet, Muhammad.

On Sept. 25, for example, President Barack Obama declared in his U.N. speech that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

In contrast, GOP advocates and legislators have argued that the administration underestimated the danger created by its policy of deposing Libya’s dictator and aiding Islamist groups.

Public approval of Obama’s Middle East policies have slumped since the attack, damaging his claims to foreign policy competence during the 2012 election campaign.

After top administration officials focused media attention on the video — rather than the vulnerability of the Benghazi facility and the proliferation of jihadi groups — Islamist leaders in the Middle East used the furor to step up their long-standing demands for curbs on Americans’ free speech.

On Oct. 10, a State Department official at a Hill hearing extended Carney’s finger-pointing.

Ambassador Patrick F. Kennedy blamed intelligence agencies for mistaken statements by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on Sept. 16’s Sunday talk-shows.

“The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same as I had on that day,” Kennedy told the Oct. 10 hearing, which was chaired by Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Rice used her appearances on the morning television shows to blame the attack on the video, not the administration’s policy of toppling Libya’s dictator and boosting theocratic Islamist groups in Egypt, Turkey and Libya.

“Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous –– not a premeditated –– response to what had transpired in Cairo,” Rice said during an ABC interview. “In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.”

In response, Republican legislators pressed State Department officials to explain why top officials blamed the video for the attack, and to explain why officials reduced the number of U.S. guards in Benghazi and Libya prior to attack.

However, State Department officials declined to explain their decisions, saying the issue was being investigated.

Democrats at the hearing also blamed the intelligence agencies for the suggestion that the video spurred the attack.

“The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement that indicated that it has been the source of [Rice’s] statement,” Democratic Rep. Eleanor Norton claimed at the Oct. 10 hearing.

On Sept. 28, the office of the Director of National Intelligence suggested that the intelligence community was responsible for administration officials’ claims that the attack was prompted by the video.

“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,” said a statement from the office’s spokesman, Shawn Taylor.

“We provided that initial assessment to executive branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available … [but] we continued to emphasize that information gathered was preliminary and evolving,” Turner said.

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Neil Munro