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 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT