Four Americans lay dead, including a bright, courageous diplomat and champion of Libyan democracy, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Those responsible — al-Qaida-linked terrorists, various militants, extremists and others — have yet to be fully identified and brought to justice. There should be a laser-like focus on going after those responsible, but in the blur of partisan wrangling over talking points, we seem to have lost sight of this vital objective.
Instead, some on Capitol Hill and elsewhere seem determined to go after another bright, courageous diplomat and champion of Libyan democracy: U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice. This is as unwise as it is unjustified.
Rice’s now-famous talking points were prepared by the intelligence community at the request of the House Intelligence Committee so we could understand the limits of what we could share publicly without compromising classified information. These talking points represented the collective assessment of more than a dozen intelligence agencies in the early days after the attack. There were multiple and conflicting strains of information, so the talking points were carefully worded to reflect the fluidity of the situation. While changes were made to protect classified sources, the testimony of acting CIA Director Michael J. Morrell and former CIA Director David H. Petraeus made it clear there was no political spin put on their substance, nor interference from the Oval Office.
In fact, the White House has confirmed the only change it made to the text was to replace “consulate” with “diplomatic facility.” Hardly earth-shattering.
So what about the revelation that Petraeus knew it was terrorism from day one? Not much of a surprise there: Everyone understood that firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at an American diplomatic post was an act of terror. The key questions were which terrorists were responsible, was the attack pre-planned or an act of opportunity, and should we have seen it coming?
While many point to Petraeus’ conclusion that terrorists were involved, they seem to ignore another key early conclusion — he also believed that protests in Benghazi preceded the attack. On this point, the intelligence community was dead wrong. And it was this early and erroneous conclusion that remained in the talking points provided to members of Congress in the late afternoon of Sept. 15 and formed the basis of Rice’s statements the following morning.
Rice took over as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at a time when the Security Council was divided on what to do about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. She united the Security Council on Iran, creating history’s strongest sanctions regime, and this has devastated Iran’s economy. And, at a time when many of our international partners distrusted any American inclination to use force in the Middle East, Rice was able to marshal international support for actions to save lives and prevent a Gadhafi massacre of tens of thousands of Libyans. During her appearance on the Sunday talk shows Sept. 16, she discussed the need to continue the pressure on Iran, the protests sweeping the Muslim world in the wake of the anti-Islamic video, and of course, the tragic events of Benghazi.
I asked Petraeus whether the final version of the talking points — ultimately relied on by Rice — represented the best unclassified assessment by the intelligence community at the time, and he agreed that it was. How then, can we fault our ambassador for relying on them? Indeed, had the ambassador departed from the conclusions of our intelligence agencies or risked revealing sources or methods, she would have been castigated for doing so. Only then, the criticism might be justified.
There have been several casualties in the partisan posturing over Benghazi. Though the intelligence community warned lawmakers clamoring for information in the early days after the attack that its initial assessments may be flawed, they have been pilloried for not immediately getting it right. In the next emergency, it will be almost impossible to get them to share initial assessments. Similarly, the CIA director will be reluctant to ever approve unclassified statements in the future, and who can blame him? But without guidance on what policymakers can share with the public in the aftermath of tragedy, there is a greater likelihood of an inadvertent compromise of the very information the director would wish to protect.
The biggest casualty in all the pointless infighting is that we have taken our eyes off the most important objective of all — moving heaven and earth to hunt down the fanatics who killed our people.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., is a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, the ranking member on the Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee and a member of the Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee.