Skip to main content

Don't rush to join Benghazi blame game

By Tara Maller, Special to CNN
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Thu October 25, 2012
Libyans wait to hand over weapons to the military in Benghazi on September 29 in an effort to disarm militias.
Libyans wait to hand over weapons to the military in Benghazi on September 29 in an effort to disarm militias.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Critics ask why Benghazi attack was not called the work of terrorists right away
  • Tara Maller: Assessments evolve over time as intel and evaluations of credibility come in
  • Analysts must consider multiple and conflicting reports, false leads and claims, she says
  • Maller: We need to understand the nature of intelligence and risk of false conclusions

Editor's note: Tara Maller is a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a former CIA military analyst.

(CNN) -- The intelligence community and the Obama administration have been under tremendous scrutiny since the attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya and an investigation is under way. But some aspects of intelligence gathering and analysis are worth keeping in mind before drawing conclusions about whether this attack could have been thwarted or if its specific nature could have been publicized sooner.

I should disclose my bias up front: I'm a former CIA analyst, and believe there is an innate "inevitability of failure" in intelligence collection and analysis. This doesn't mean we shouldn't hold agencies accountable if reasonable signs were missed in Benghazi, but assessments often take time, evolving as new information and evaluations of the credibility of conflicting reports emerge.

Instead of trying to turn the Benghazi attack -- and the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans -- into a partisan blame game, policymakers would be better served by thinking about how to enhance U.S. intelligence capabilities.

Tara Maller
Tara Maller
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Richard Betts writes in his seminal 1978 piece on intelligence failures, "Analysis, War, and Decision: Why Intelligence Failures are Inevitable," that "intelligence failures are not only inevitable, they are natural." In his 2002 piece, "Fixing Intelligence," he notes that "even the best intelligence systems will have BIG failures."

Betts says so much information is being collected around the globe regarding so many potential targets, with so many enemy actors adopting deceptive tactics to mislead analysts, that uncovering every threat and thwarting every possible attack is virtually impossible.

This overwhelming abundance of information, Betts says, may result in false alarms -- making it more difficult to discern if the threat of an upcoming attack is real. The global stream of information constantly includes vague information regarding security risks.

The tragic events in Benghazi mark the first killing of a U.S. ambassador since 1979. But the rarity of this kind of terror attack actually demonstrates the overarching success of U.S. intelligence agencies in keeping Americans safe.

Suspect wrote online during Libya attack
McCain: Media given facts before we were
Benghazi attack: Who knew what when?
Clinton on Libya: Don't play blame game

People have questioned why the administration didn't immediately report that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. But we don't know whether analysts had enough credible intelligence on hand at the time to be absolutely sure of the nature of the attack. Reports indicate that the intelligence community's evaluations evolved in the following days and weeks as information came in, and policymakers were briefed as assessments changed and solidified. This is common practice.

It's also important to keep in mind that the better a state's intelligence capabilities, the more reports it collects, making assessments take longer as mountains of information are sifted through.

These realities are significant as the intelligence community's role in the Libya attack is examined under a political microscope.

Government e-mails sent about two hours after the attack and obtained by CNN show that an Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, had claimed responsibility for Benghazi on Facebook and Twitter, one of many channels of information intel analysts need to examine before reaching conclusions. The group denied responsibility the next day.

Claims such as these need to be corroborated. Sometimes multiple groups claim responsibility after attacks; obviously claims of responsibility are often false. It's also possible that the attackers had ties to multiple groups, or had different motives. Expecting policymakers to publicly examine and go through every conflicting piece of intelligence collected in the hours before and after an attack would be unreasonable and potentially even damaging to national security.

Instead of making political hay out of the circumstances surrounding Benghazi, we should be focusing on how to improve our intelligence collection and analysis capabilities. But we should also avoid overreacting with ill-considered major organizational overhauls in response to one particular attack.

One improvement we could make right away is to invest in recruiting high caliber people to the intelligence community to create an analyst reserve corps. Betts has proposed this idea, and it merits renewed attention.

Such a team could comprise nonpartisan trained intelligence experts from various government agencies, academia and the private sector who would be mobilized when an incident happens. Another idea would be to create the equivalent of an intelligence special forces team made up of individuals from inside the ranks or from outside professions. Additional scholarships could be offered to recruit students from top colleges and graduate schools.

We could also promote academic research into the realm of intelligence. There is a wide array of academic literature on military tactics and strategy, war, sanctions and negotiations, but little in the field of the role of intelligence in conflicts.

In the final days leading up to the election, we must evaluate the performance of intelligence gathering in Benghazi in a fair and objective manner, with every effort to omit our biases and political views.

The intelligence community prides itself on such objectivity in its work and in serving both Democratic and Republican administrations. The public and policymakers should afford analysts the same courtesy by holding their judgments of the intelligence community to the same standard.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tara Maller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT