The House Intelligence Committee’s Benghazi Report — more than fair

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has issued its report on the Benghazi attack. You can find it here.

The Committee concludes, among things, that CIA personnel on the ground in Benghazi during the attack behaved bravely and made reasonable tactical decisions that saved lives, and that the CIA received all military support that was available.

It further concludes that after the attack, the administration’s initial public narrative (via Susan Rice) on the causes and motivations for the attack was not fully accurate. In addition, edits made to the Benghazi “talking points” were not fully accurate, and the process that produced the talking points was flawed. However, the Committee stops short of finding misconduct or bad faith on the part of Susan Rice or any other administration official.

The Committee’s findings will disappoint many of the right. However, I believe it should be commended for attempting to be fair-minded, rather than partisan, about this politically-charged matter.

This doesn’t mean, though, that all of the Committee’s conclusions are correct, or that it drew all of the conclusions that it should have. Nor is the Committee’s word necessarily final. A Select Committee on Benghazi, under the leadership of Trey Gowdy, is in the process of investigating the matter.

For what it’s worth, I find persuasive the Intelligence Committee’s conclusions about the response to the attack by the CIA and the military. As I’ve said before, it’s doubtful that the CIA and/or our armed forces missed a realistic rescue opportunity. And recent allegations that the CIA issued a “stand-down order” to Benghazi security personal strike me as weak, for reasons I’ll discuss later.

By contrast, I’m far from persuaded by the report’s unwillingness to infer bad faith on the part of Susan Rice and/or other administration officials. The Committee relies on the fact that, at the time Rice went on television, there were conflicting intelligence reports about the Benghazi attack. This is true, but does not exonerate Rice.

Rice’s line on the Sunday talk shows was that the Benghazi attack was a “direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated.” Rice claimed that this was “our best current assessment, based on the information we have at present.”

But it’s clear to me from the Committee’s report that when Rice spoke, it was not the “best current assessment” that the Benghazi attack was “a direct result of a. . .video.” There was some intelligence that tended to support this view, but it never had a preponderance of the evidence behind it.

Rice chose to adopt the most politically convenient explanation and to invest it with a status (“best current assessment”) that it neither had nor deserved. This smacks of bad faith.

Then, there are the famous Benghazi “talking points.” The Committee finds that they were the result of a flawed process and were not fully accurate. But it finds no bad faith. Instead, it accepts Mike Morrell’s questionable claims that there was no political pressure from the White House and that the watering down of the document mainly reflected how little was actually known about the situation.

There’s an obvious disconnect here. The talking points supposedly were edited to reflect uncertainty. But in her television appearances, Susan Rice resolved the uncertainty in favor of an explicit claim that the attacks were directly caused by the video.

It seems obvious that not everyone was operating in good faith. In declining to so find, I believe the Committee is being “more than fair” to the Obama administration, and I mean that literally. The Committee is giving the White House more benefit of the doubt than fairness requires, or warrants.

Now, as promised, let me deal with the Committee’s treatment of the allegations by certain Benghazi security personnel that they were told by the CIA to “stand down” during the early stage of the attack. They have presented this claim in a book about the attack called 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi. They also presented it in a riveting hour-long Fox News special. Fox has continued to promote the allegation on various prime time shows.

The Committee rejects the claim that there was a stand-down order. It finds instead that “there were mere tactical disagreements about the speed with which the [security] team should depart [for the State Department’s facility] prior to securing additional security assets,” i.e., local militias.

The Committee also finds that the decision by the Chief of Base to wait was a reasonable one based on the information available at the time. But whatever one concludes about the merits of the decision, I see no scandal here, just a disagreement about the best way to proceed in conditions of great uncertainty.

The Committee says that “the evidence from eyewitness testimony, ISR vedeo footage, closed-circuit television recordings, and other sources provides no support for the allegation that there was any stand-down order.” It’s my understanding that the authors of 13 Hours testified before the Committee. By saying that the eyewitness testimony doesn’t support the claim of a stand-down order, the Committee is saying, I think, that the authors did not testify under oath that they were told to stand down.

Finally, let me mention one aspect of the Committee’s report that you probably won’t read about in the mainstream media or in administration talking points. The Committee states that, according to CIA security personnel, State Department security agents repeatedly said they were ill-equipped and ill-trained to contend with the threat environment in Benghazi. Indeed, they knew well before the attacks that they could not defend the State Department’s facility against an armed assault.

These State Department agents told the CIA that they had requested additional resources. Their request was still pending on September 11, 2012.

The House Intelligence Committee has spoken. The ball is in the court of Chairman Gowdy and his Select Benghazi Committee. Let’s see what it concludes.