Cracks are beginning to show in the Obama administration's united front on the Benghazi consulate as blame for security failures shifts between the State Department and the CIA. Last night, starting around 6 p.m., the CIA began circulating the most comprehensive timeline yet of its response to the September 11 attack to reporters. The timeline showed that within 25 minutes of receiving calls for help, CIA operatives left their compound to assist the besieged consulate. But later on Thursday night, officials in the Obama administration leaked a series of damaging remarks about the CIA's handling of Benghazi to The Wall Street Journal with a slew of grievances directed at CIA Director David Petraeus. The fast-developing story set in place a dispute over who's responsible for the security failure, which remains unclear.
As with everything, the context here is key. According to The Journal's report, the security situation in Benghazi relied on a "symbiotic" relationship between the State Department and the CIA, in which the State Department in Benghazi served as a front for CIA activities while the CIA provided backup security. But on the night of Sept. 11, it became clear that the arrangement was flawed: "The CIA and State Department weren’t on the same page about their respective roles on security, underlining the rift between agencies over taking responsibility," reports the Journal. But here's where things get personal. According to officials speaking with the Journal, Petraeus's response to the crisis was less than stellar:
At the State Department that night, officials frantically tried to find out what was happening. In recent interviews, some administration officials criticized the CIA for not being forthcoming with information ... At one point during the consulate siege, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned the CIA director directly to seek assistance. Real-time intelligence from the field was scarce and some officials at State and the Pentagon were largely in the dark about the CIA's role ...
In the aftermath of the assault, questions have been raised within the administration and on Capitol Hill about Mr. Petraeus's role in responding to the attack. On Oct. 10, lawmakers grilled senior State Department officials about the attack. Some senior administration officials say they were surprised Mr. Petraeus went to that night's private Washington screening of the movie Argo, about a covert CIA operation in 1979 in Tehran.
If that weren't critical enough, the article also contains the additional barb that Petraeus didn't show adequate respect for the CIA operatives who were killed in Benghazi. "Mr. Petraeus didn't attend funerals held later for the two CIA contractors, irking some administration officials and CIA veterans," reads the report. For national security experts pouring over the Journal story, the airing of these details was extraordinary.
Wow. Someone is trying to end Dave Petraeus' career here. professional.wsj.com/article/SB1000…— Noah Shachtman (@dangerroom) November 2, 2012
This is the WH declaring war on the Director, nothing less online.wsj.com/article/SB1000…— Kalashnikitty (@CustosDivini) November 2, 2012
The depiction of Petraeus as less than responsive during a crisis and less than sympathetic in its aftermath, certainly was not flattering. The CIA, however, denies this depiction of both the director and the agency in general. This morning, a senior U.S. intelligence officer tells us, "At every level in the chain of command, from the senior officers in Libya to the most senior officials in Washington, everyone was fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could." To drive that point home, the agency had the timeline chronicling its asserted attempts to assist the besieged consulate.
As this inter-agency squabble plays out it's impossible to say who's more culpable. However, stepping back a bit, there seems to be a hole in last night's State Department narrative that the CIA let down State officials in their time of need. It suggests that State had taken the necessary precautions to secure its officials, but the CIA never came through. But if that were the case, how come Amb. Chris Stevens and other State personnel continued to petition State for additional security in the run-up to the attack? The Washington Post's Max Fisher fleshes out this point well:
Based on unsigned letters discovered at the consulate grounds weeks after the attack, it appears that Stevens did not see the building’s day-to-day security as adequate and was asking for more.
This day-to-day Libyan-provided security is distinct from the “emergency” CIA security, but if Stevens saw the former as insufficient, then why now is there so much focus on the latter’s inability to save the day?
In essence, based on what we know from congressional testimony and other resources, it's difficult to see how some State Department officials can shift all the blame to the CIA. But maybe we'll know if the drip, drip, drip of additional leaks continues.