Skip to main content

Don't rush to join Benghazi blame game

By Tara Maller, Special to CNN
October 25, 2012 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT