Something is rotten in Benghazi-Petraeus. But we cannot find the rot in these two tragedies because the information is classified and the administration remains silent at the pleasure of the press.
Benghazi first: The CIA Libyan Chief of Station within 24 hours of the Tuesday September 11 attack on our consulate cabled CIA headquarters that it was carried out by militants and not in reaction to an obscure American-made internet video that criticized Islam’s Prophet Muhammed.
Yet on Friday, September 14, Director of Central Intelligence, General David Petraeus, ignored his chief boot-on-the-ground and briefed the House Intelligence Committee, as described by Vice-Chairman Ruppensberger (D-Md), that the attack was “spontaneous.”
What happened in those two days that the causal theory turned 180 degrees? Did the now discarded theory belong only to Director of Central Intelligence Petraeus and the CIA? Because on that same day, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chief Vice Chairman Admiral James Whinnefeld, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they believed the attack was premeditated.
The administration had time to co-ordinate the two inconsistent assessments. It did not. On Sunday, September 16, UN Ambassador Susan Rice fulfilled the quinfecta of all Sunday shows during which she vigorously backed the CIA/ Petraeus position: “What happened…in Benghazi…was a direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated, which the U.S. government had nothing to do with, which we have made clear is reprehensible and disgusting.” (ABC Jake Tapper) The press reported the CIA provided her “talking points,” a job usually reserved for a press secretary.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was nowhere to be seen or heard that day. Her spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, has steadfastly deferred to others when asked whether the video was the cause.
The White House had 9 more days to gather facts to decide which theory was supported by the evidence. It did not. Or it chose not to tell us.
Nine days later in his speech to the United Nations, President Obama was still accusing the video of being the proximate cause where he referred to it six times, declaring “a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world.” This discredited claim was made notwithstanding Libyan President Mohammad Magarief’s telling NBC on that very day that the attacks “had nothing to do with” the video. Did these two presidents not communicate during this time? Or did President Obama ignore the president-on-the-ground’s assessment?
For some reason DCI Petraeus backed the Obama unsupported theory that the video made the attackers do it rather than his own Chief of Station’s assessment that it was a planned military attack.
Why do the shifting stories and misplaced theory of cause matter?
Because if an administration pushes a political agenda that applauds the killing of Bin Laden as the ultimate act for eradicating the radical Islamic threat, then that same administration ignores its Ambassador’s urgent pleas for more security for fear it will appear Bin Laden’s demise was not the answer to that threat. Our country’s chief spy is supposed to know which theory is held up by the evidence.
Having pointed out the context of Petraeus’ strange support of that now refuted theory, we must turn to the bizarre circumstances of his resignation as DCI after the FBI discovered he had an affair with his biographer.
Something is terribly amiss for those of us steeped in federal criminal law, national security, and Congressional protocol. We have been told that the president knew nothing of the investigation until post-election Wednesday.
Similarly, the relevant Congressional committees said they either heard about it on television (Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein) or just a few hours before the announcement. Yet policy and the law—depending on the gravity of the facts--call for the FBI to inform the Intelligence Committees and the White House whenever there is a concern about any person involved in national security.
When there is merely a minor security concern, for example if a bad actor happens to be at the same dinner party in a foreign country as a travelling Member of the Intelligence Committee, long standing policy establishes that the Intelligence Committees should be informed. But the Petraeus matter was “significant.” Thus the law requires notice to the relevant Congressional Members. What did FBI Director Robert Mueller know and when did he know it? And whom did he tell?
If notice were the only breach of law or protocol it might not mean much, except bad judgment. But the entire scenario of Petraeus’ nomination and confirmation does not compute, and implicates an additional level of incompetence or willful blindness.
Consider: When Petraeus was nominated for DCI, there were “rumors” in Afghanistan about the duo and the extent of her access to him, according to well-respected foreign policy expert and Fox News national security analyst K.T. McFarland, who was on the ground there at the time.
Who headed Petraeus’ background investigation? The first time I had a background check, the FBI asked my neighbors whether I was a good mother. They also asked whether I was a lesbian.
These people are not shy about asking sensitive sex-related questions.
Consider: In the questionnaire a nominee must submit for the confirmation process, there is that final catch-all question. “Is there anything in your past that could embarrass the president?” That’s when the delicate affair should have been discussed by the Army General War Hero. Having an embarrassing issue does not disqualify the nominee. It means more investigation needs to be done to determine whether the conduct really is a problem. Did Petraeus reveal the relationship at that time?
Consider: All candidates for CIA employment must take a polygraph. Doesn’t the nominee for DCI have to do so also? And that nasty little catch-all embarrassment question is always asked by the polygrapher. Usually, the polygraphee is thinking back to college and confessing to smoking pot. In 2011, it would not take a sterling memory for Petraeus to remember a 2011 affair.
Why is the administration’s handling of the affair significant? Because sloppy vetting of the country’s top spy and not giving timely notice to the oversight committees was either gross incompetence or a deliberate evasion of law. Or the sticky situation was used to pressure the DCI into backing the White House theory. Or there was a much bigger secret at Benghazi that all involved were (and still are ) trying to cover up.
The two seemingly unrelated incidents are now merged. Just days before Petraeus is scheduled to testify about the first, he resigns because of the second, and cancels his Congressional appearances. The House and Senate have the authority to subpoena him. It is up to them and the media to find the rot.
Victoria Toensing is a former Chief Counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, where among other assignments she created the anti-terrorism section. She is a founding partner of diGenova & Toensing.