The firestorm surrounding the story that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice told on Sunday morning talk shows five days after the attack on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi has drawn wildly different reactions around Washington. Bad data? Innocent mistake? Political deception? From the president's staunch defense of Rice to John McCain's repeated attacks, different people see different things. But, as a former CIA analyst, I've taken a separate lesson from the episode: The office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), created to facilitate interagency analysis and operations, has become a serious bureaucratic obstacle.
For a long time, the CIA ruled the intelligence cycle of collection, aggregation, analysis, and dissemination. But in 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended the United States unify the intelligence community. Thus, the DNI was born. Today, according to its website, the DNI "serves as the head of the Intelligence Community, overseeing and directing the implementation of the National Intelligence Program and acting as the principal advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to national security." But, however noble and sensible the intent, the DNI has done very little to remedy the coordination issues -- and Benghazi is a perfect example.
On September 16, Rice went on Meet the Press and stated, "Our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the [Innocence of Muslims] video." Rice has since publicly stated that there was an error in the intelligence she was given -- there was not a protest at the facility in Benghazi. But the initial set of talking points from the CIA is said to have indicated that the attackers had links to al Qaeda. So why did she not mention that? A U.S. intelligence official has said, "The information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources, and could not be corroborated at the unclassified level; the links were tenuous and therefore it made sense to be cautious before naming perpetrators." So was Rice just being prudent? It's possible, though her performance was clumsy at best.
I have no access to classified information from the CIA or DNI on Benghazi, but here's what might have happened. On the eve of the attack, the analysts at the CIA are reading reports from regional embassies, watching news reports, and poring over cables from assets as the ridiculous anti-Islam YouTube video sparks protests across the region. As the attack in Benghazi ensues, they scramble to assess the situation and draft products for the various consumers -- the most sensitive pieces go to select people at the White House, Pentagon, Office of the DNI, and National Security Council. If time allows, an alternative product is scrubbed of the most sensitive information for release across various parts of the U.S. government. In other words, the CIA may (or may not) have disseminated two different sets of talking points: one highly classified to protect sources and methods, and a second for broader dissemination.
Although the CIA's role has changed in recent years, informing and warning the senior ranks of the U.S. government on tactical issues is supposed to be its purview, because over the course of decades, the agency has established processes to create, coordinate, and disseminate the right intelligence to the right audience. This is not to say that the CIA has always been correct in its assessments -- the very nature of analysis, particularly on breaking events, all but guarantees some degree of error -- but it has an established way of producing analytic products.
Alas, one of the responsibilities of the DNI is to "ensure the most accurate analysis of intelligence is derived from all sources to support national security needs" (my emphasis), and the intelligence community, for better or worse, is not a public affairs dynamo: it is made up of 16 agencies. It's likely that the DNI passed the document to other intel agencies, which all added views from their own analysts, and created another set of talking points to be disseminated. These talking points could easily have emphasized the role of the video in Benghazi -- not all analysts from differing agencies have access to the same information. In the case of the DNI, collective intelligence analysis can be just as flawed as independent analysis: a consensus view can reveal differences of opinion within the intelligence community, but it also can result in the loss of nuance or, worse, become a convenient excuse for adopting a safe position.