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Does the Press Have Better Intel than the White House?

Among the many dismaying aspects of the Benghazi attacks which left our ambassador and three other American dead, there is this point which I have not yet heard publicly debated: that readers of the New York Times and Washington Post probably had a better idea of what happened than readers of the President’s Daily Brief and other highly classified intelligence products.

The office of the director of national intelligence offered the following in a statement issued September 28: “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. 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.”

Yet those who read about the attack in “open source,” unclassified publications had reason to reach a very different conclusion. On September 13, just two days after the attack, the New York Times published an article, datelined Benghazi, by Suliman Ali Zway and Rick Gladstone, which began by quoting a Libyan security official, Wanis el-Sharif, who claimed that there had been two attacks–the first a spontaneous demonstration, the second a planned terrorist attack. But then the intrepid reporters noted:

Two Libyans who were wounded while guarding the consulate said that, contrary to Mr. Sharif’s account, there was no indication within the consulate grounds that a mass protest, including members of armed groups, had been brewing outside. The guards spoke on condition of anonymity for their personal safety, and one of them said he realized the dangers only about 9:30 p.m., when protesters crashed through the gate and “started shooting and throwing grenades.” The other guard said that he had been drinking coffee inside the compound just before the attack, and that it was so quiet “there was not even a single ant.”

So those who read this New York Times account would have been at least alerted to the possibility that there had been no demonstration at all–and if they had placed their faith in the testimony of eyewitnesses, not in what a faraway Libyan government official said, they would have been inclined to accept it as a certainty.

Why wasn’t that same conclusion reached by the intelligence community? Why was it not until a month later that the State Department finally admitted that there had been no demonstration?

It’s impossible for an outsider to know for sure, but I can speculate. And my speculation is this: the New York Times, and other major media organs, often have better-on-the-ground reporting from hot spots like Benghazi than does the intelligence community. In this case intelligence gathering would have been severely disrupted by the attack on the U.S. consulate, which caused the evacuation of all U.S. government employees from Benghazi. Those evacuated included not only diplomats but also, undoubtedly, intelligence officers who usually operate out of U.S. installations under diplomatic cover. The situation was judged so unsafe that even an armed FBI team was not allowed into Benghazi for three weeks and then very briefly. But journalists, operating without the “force protection” requirements that often bedevil U.S. government employees, were able to reach the consulate right away.

There is something slightly pathetic about the fact that all of the tens of billions of dollars spent by the U.S. on intelligence gathering too often leave policymakers either blind or sometimes, as with Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction, deluded. This is not the forum in which to spell out how the intelligence community should be reformed, but clearly there is an urgent need for reform to cut overhead and improve analysis and human collection. Not the kind of faux reform that occurred after 9/11, adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to the process, but real reform that would cut back bureaucracy and set loose the many talented individuals, both analysts and case officers, who too often struggle unsuccessfully to break out of the shackles of red tape.