BY STEPHEN F. HAYES AND THOMAS JOSCELYN
DEC 15, 2014, VOL. 20, NO. 14
After a long day on November 13, 2013, Speaker of the House John Boehner walked down the marble hallways of the Longworth House Office Building to the personal office of Representative Devin Nunes for a drink, a cigarette, and maybe a brief reprieve.
But Boehner’s visit was not a social call. He was there to see three CIA officers who had fought in Benghazi, Libya. Their identities were unknown to all but a small group of U.S. government officials with high-level security clearances, and the details of their harrowing stories were unknown to virtually everyone who was not a colleague or relative.
And the fact that the meeting was taking place at all was unknown to the man who, under different circumstances, might have been expected to host it. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was not invited.
Rogers was sick of Benghazi. Some of his Republican colleagues had spun themselves into a frenzy of conspiracy theorizing, publicly making wild claims that had no basis in fact or hinting at dark conspiracies that had the president of the United States willfully and eagerly arming its enemies. Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, long the Republican face of Benghazi investigations, accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of giving a “stand-down” order to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Representative Louie Gohmert claimed that Senator John McCain deserved some of the blame for Benghazi because McCain, like Barack Obama, had supported opposition forces in Libya. Normally responsible Republicans pretended that Hillary Clinton’s famous “what difference at this point does it make” line was not so much a tone-deaf question about how the attacks happened, which deserved the criticism it earned, but a declaration of indifference that the attacks happened, which was absurd. Rogers complained about these excesses regularly to his staff and colleagues.
This frustration, however, wasn’t the reason Boehner and Nunes cut him out of the meeting with CIA officers. They shared his frustration, as it happened.
Their concern was deeper. Rogers had long been reluctant to commit more time and resources to investigating Benghazi. At a meeting of intelligence committee Republicans in early 2013, just four months after the attacks, Rogers laid out his priorities for the new Congress. Not only was Benghazi not on that list, according to three sources in the meeting, he declared to the members that the issue was in the past and that they wouldn’t be devoting significant time and resources to investigating it. Whatever failures there had been in Benghazi, he explained, they had little to do with the intelligence community, and his intelligence committee would therefore have little to do with investigating them.
In the months that followed, more troubling details about the Benghazi story emerged in the media. Among the most damaging: Internal emails made clear that top Obama administration officials had misled the country about the administration’s role in the flawed “Benghazi talking points” that Susan Rice had used in her Sunday television appearances following the attacks, and that former acting CIA director Michael Morell had misled Congress about the same. Other reports made clear that intelligence officials on the ground in Benghazi had reported almost immediately that the assault was a terrorist attack involving jihadists with links to al Qaeda—information that was removed from the materials used to prepare administration officials for their public discussion of the attacks. A top White House adviser wrote an email suggesting that the administration affix blame for the attacks on a YouTube video.
The revelations even roused the establishment media from their Benghazi torpor and generated extraordinarily hostile questioning of White House press secretary Jay Carney by reporters who had trusted his claims of administration noninvolvement.
None of this convinced Rogers to make Benghazi a priority—a fact that frustrated many of the committee’s members. Boehner received a steady stream of visits and phone calls from House members who complained that Rogers wasn’t doing his job. In all, seven members of the intelligence committee took their concerns directly to the speaker or his top aides. Boehner’s presence at the secret meeting in Nunes’s office demonstrated that he shared those concerns long before he decided to impanel a select committee to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the Benghazi attacks. And what happened to the CIA officers as they attempted to share their story with congressional oversight committees suggests that those concerns were well founded.
As lawmakers headed home for Thanksgiving two weeks ago, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report concluding that there were no intelligence failures related to the September 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi and otherwise bolstering claims by the administration and its defenders that the controversy surrounding the attacks and their aftermath was rooted more in the imaginations of critics than in reality.
For many of those who had been following the story closely, the report was bizarre and troubling. Key events were left out. Important figures were never mentioned. Well-known controversies were elided. Congressional testimony on controversial issues was mischaracterized. The authoritative tone of the conclusions was undermined by the notable gaps in evidence presented to support them.
“If this was a high school paper, I would give it an F,” says John Tiegen, a former CIA officer who fought on the ground that night in Benghazi and lived through many of the events the report purports to describe. “There are so many mistakes it’s hard to know where to begin. How can an official government report get so many things wrong?”
It’s a good question. Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican who serves on the committee that produced the report, disputes the premise.
“I don’t think this is the official government report. It’s Mike Rogers’s report,” says Rooney. “The members of his own committee don’t even agree with it.”
Indeed, several committee members we reached distanced themselves from the report released in their name, some on background, others on the record. “I probably would have written it differently,” says Representative Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas who will assume the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee in the new Congress. “And it’s important to remember that this is a narrow look at just one part of the Benghazi story. All of the talk that this report answers this, that, and the other? It doesn’t. That’s the reason that Boehner appointed the select committee.”
Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York, signed an “additional views” statement but was unhappy with the report itself. “It was nowhere near the report I would have written,” King told us. “I agreed with some of the key findings—that the State Department was told about threats, that the intelligence community determined almost immediately that it was a terrorist attack. And I thought to reject it altogether wouldn’t have been smart; better to get some of that out there. But the best interpretation is that it was an attempt to be bipartisan. And that’s the best interpretation.”
Committee members say the staff ignored their objections. Rooney says he was angry when he first read a draft of the report, raised several substantive concerns, and sought to have his questions answered. “I actually sat down with the attorney for the committee and went over the language they were using in the report versus my understanding of what actually happened,” said Rooney, a former prosecutor. “I said: ‘I don’t agree with this finding, I don’t agree with this finding, I don’t agree with this finding.’ He was like: ‘Okay, we’ll take that into consideration.’ ”
If committee leadership did, in fact, take his objections into consideration it’s not evident from the report. Rooney says the report reads today just as it did before he complained.
Representative Joe Heck, a Republican from Nevada, says that while he believes the 15 “findings” in the main report are “valid,” the report should have been stronger. Heck, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve who was given a seat on the intelligence committee as a freshman in 2011, singled out the section on the Benghazi talking points as particularly weak. “The report was not as hard-hitting as it should have been,” he says.
Representative Mike Pompeo, Republican from Kansas, backs the conclusions of the report but says it is necessarily incomplete. “The facts that are contained in there—I have not heard anybody dispute the facts.” But Pompeo noted that he also serves on the Benghazi Select Committee, which is in the early stages of its investigation, and added: “There are still lots of documents to be made available, many witnesses yet to speak with outside the land of the intelligence community.”
The strongest support for the report came from Mike Conaway, Republican from Texas, who praised Rogers’s investigation as thorough and said: “I think the report is reflective of the facts we found.”
Not surprisingly, Rogers strongly disagrees with his critics. The committee provided a long list of its Benghazi-related activities and noted that Rogers has been critical of the Obama administration on Benghazi. Asked why Rogers told committee Republicans in early 2013 that there was no need to investigate further, Susan Phalen, a spokesman for the committee, did not dispute that her boss made the comments but argued instead that the committee held 56 “oversight events related to Benghazi” in 2013.
Although the House Intelligence Committee report claims to be the definitive statement of the House of Representatives on matters of Benghazi and intelligence, interviews over the past week make clear that it’s not even the consensus position of Republicans on the committee.
It’s not hard to see why. Although it adds to our overall understanding of Benghazi, even a cursory read reveals sloppy errors of fact and numerous internal contradictions. For instance, on one page, the report has a top intelligence officer sending an email from Benghazi on September 15, before a crucial White House meeting on the Benghazi talking points. A few pages later, the report has the same email sent on September 16 and arriving the day after that White House meeting. Elsewhere, the report informs readers that the first CIA assessment of the Benghazi attacks, an Executive Update published internally on September 12, reported that “the presence of armed assailants from the incident’s outset suggests this was an intentional assault and not the escalation of a peaceful protest.” One paragraph later, however, the report tells us that Morell, the agency’s point man on Benghazi, testified that the first word there was no protest came on September 14. And later still we are told that the intelligence community didn’t have confirmation that there was no protest until surveillance video was recovered on September 18—a full week after the attacks.
Those are minor errors, however, compared with the major omissions and mischaracterizations that mar the report. In a section on the controversy over the inaccurate talking points, for example, the committee inexplicably relies on Morell as its key fact witness and arbiter of truth. But nowhere in the body of the report is there even a hint that Morell misled Congress repeatedly about his involvement in those talking points for eight months after the attacks. The report also attempts to clear the CIA of allegations that the agency made personnel sign special nondisclosure agreements related to their work in Benghazi. To do so, the authors ignore public, on-the-record claims of the attorney for those officials directly contradicting that conclusion. Mark Zaid, a veteran national security lawyer representing five CIA officers who served in Benghazi, told The Weekly Standard last year that his clients were presented with nondisclosure agreements that were “legally unnecessary” and intended to send a message. “There is no doubt that the NDAs would not have been presented to them had it not been for Benghazi,” Zaid said at the time. “That is their impression and my analysis based on 20 years’ experience.” Curiously, the report seeks to exculpate a Libyan militia that provided security to the U.S. mission in Benghazi. But doing so requires the authors to omit key evidence that the group was compromised, including video evidence acquired since the attacks of a leader of that militia fighting alongside Ansar al Sharia—the al Qaeda-linked group that took part in the assault on the U.S. facilities.
The report begins by asserting that it is a “comprehensive” look at Benghazi resulting from an intensive investigation of nearly two years. Neither claim is true. Instead, the report is a reflection of a dysfunctional committee and the reluctant, ad hoc approach to Benghazi of its leadership and top staff.
Kris Paronto remembers joking with John Boehner about his tan.
It was mid-November, but the former CIA officer asked the speaker if he’d been doing a lot of golfing. Boehner laughed and responded with a joke about golfing less than President Obama.
It was nearly 9:00 p.m., and the Longworth building was mostly empty. Paronto was joined in Representative Nunes’s office by two others who had fought in Benghazi—Mark Geist and “Jack,” the pseudonym for a former Navy SEAL who doesn’t want his name made public—as well as Zaid, their lawyer. The men sipped port from Portugal, the country of Nunes’s ancestors, and red wine from the Alpha Omega winery in his home state of California.
The 45-minute meeting with the speaker was mostly taken up with small talk—about family, Congress, the military. There were two exceptions. The first came when Boehner asked about persistent rumors that the CIA was involved in weapons transfers from Libya to Syria. Paronto reported that he had never seen any evidence to support those claims. He made clear that he couldn’t rule it out, but could speak with certainty only about what he’d seen and done—and that didn’t involve moving arms. Boehner, who was intensely interested in Benghazi but not inclined to chase conspiracies, seemed satisfied. The second serious moment came near the end of the meeting, when Boehner told the men that he fully supported Nunes and his efforts to have them testify before the House Intelligence Committee.
Nunes, who will succeed Rogers as chairman in the new Congress, had spoken with some of the CIA officers before, including a six-hour session in his office on the occasion of their first meeting. The stories these men told affirmed the Obama administration’s version in some respects and contradicted it in many others. Before their appearance, the full committee had heard from only one CIA officer who was on the ground in Benghazi. There was no way to conduct a serious investigation without hearing from these eyewitnesses and others like them, yet the committee never contacted them.
In the late summer of 2013, after the men had made clear to Nunes their willingness to testify, Rogers exchanged several letters with Zaid, who represented not just Paronto, Geist, and “Jack” but also two others who had been on the ground in Benghazi, John Tiegen and “D.B. Benton,” another pseudonym. The men had begun collaborating on a book, 13 Hours, which would be published in September 2014. Written by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff, it offers a detailed and decidedly nonpolitical account of what happened in Benghazi. Each of the men fought throughout the night to repel the attacks, some of them sustaining major injuries. Geist nearly had his arm blown off by a mortar as he fired on attackers from the roof of a building at the CIA annex early on September 12. Tiegen arrived moments later to find Geist trying to hold his tattered arm in place and both Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty dead.
Zaid wrote Rogers that his clients were eager to share their story with the committee, and he made several routine requests in preparation, according to the correspondence, obtained by The Weekly Standard. “On behalf of my clients and the memories of their fallen colleagues, thank you for your interest in this event,” Zaid wrote, later noting that his clients “are looking forward to providing assistance to the Committee’s investigation.”
He asked the committee to permit him to sit in on the hearing and upgrade his security clearances accordingly, and he requested that the committee subpoena his clients to give them some cover for their testimony. Zaid asked that the transcripts of the testimony not be made public until after September 1, 2014, when their book was due to be published. Zaid also requested that his clients receive the usual reimbursement for any reasonable travel and lodging expenses.
Zaid received a response from Rogers dated September 26, 2013. It opened with a threat to subpoena his clients if they refused to testify voluntarily—something they’d already agreed to do if the committee met their perfunctory requests. “We had hoped your clients would voluntarily assist the Committee’s investigation of the September 11, 2012, attacks against U.S. interests in Benghazi, Libya. If, however, your clients are not willing to participate voluntarily, we will issue subpoenas to require their attendance before and testimony to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.”
The threat struck Zaid as odd. He had made clear that his clients were testifying voluntarily, and he’d asked for the subpoenas.
The letter also noted that the closed hearing would allow for questioning from “any member of the full committee, as well as certain committee staff,” an unremarkable passage that would soon take on added significance.
But it was another line that angered Zaid and his clients. “The Committee will not reimburse witnesses for travel expenses.”
Asked about the committee’s initial refusal to cover the expenses of the witnesses, spokesman Susan Phalen told The Weekly Standard: “At no time did the committee refuse to cover the costs of travel and lodging for the witnesses.”
In a response dated September 26, 2013, Zaid not only expressed his displeasure at the refusal to cover routine expenses, but also noted the committee’s “sudden interest” in Benghazi and scolded the panel for not seeking their testimony earlier. “I am, however, quite disappointed that the Committee has refused to reimburse my clients, who are now private citizens residing far outside of the Washington, D.C., area, for their out-of-pocket travel and lodging costs. Of course, had your Committee sought their testimony while they remained in the employ of the U.S. Government, this would have been a nonissue. Indeed, my clients always expected to hear from Congressional investigators, but no inquiries ever came to their attention.”
Zaid says lawyers for the committee told him that they would not reimburse his clients for expenses unless he agreed to drop his request for subpoenas. Issuing subpoenas, they told him, was an administrative hassle and they were unnecessary because his clients were volunteering to testify. Zaid agreed and dropped the request for subpoenas.
Phalen says House rules “do not allow the Committee to pay per diem to witnesses who are compelled to appear.” When staff explained this to Zaid, she says, he agreed to drop his request.
Zaid doesn’t remember it that way. “As far as I recall, I was never told that subpoenaed witnesses could not be provided per diem expenses. If I had been, there is no issue to discuss nor any dispute. The arrangement as negotiated was a quid pro quo agreement that our request for a subpoena would be withdrawn in exchange for the reimbursement of expenses.”
The parties agreed that Tiegen would testify alongside the CIA team leader, still employed by the government, on November 13, 2013, and Paronto, Geist, and “Jack” would testify the following day.
The first day of testimony was unremarkable. The second was not.
The hearings with Paronto, Geist, and “Jack” started well enough, with members of the committee from both parties, including Rogers, thanking the men for their heroism. The questioning from members of the committee, particularly the Democrats, was challenging but usually respectful. But the tone changed dramatically when the members were called away to the House floor for a vote and staff took over, according to six sources familiar with the testimony.
The top lawyer for Democrats on the committee, Michael Bahar, went first. He wanted to know about the debate between these CIA officers, who had wanted to move quickly from the CIA annex to the diplomatic compound, which was under attack, and the CIA’s chief of base in Benghazi, who had ordered them to wait while he telephoned for additional support from local security forces. The CIA officers had grown increasingly impatient as they listened to the desperate pleas of State Department personnel under attack at the compound less than two miles away.
Finally, the CIA officers decided they had waited long enough. Their primary obligation was to those under attack, they reasoned, so they jumped into their vehicles and departed for the compound.
The committee declined to release full transcripts of the hearings involving the CIA officers, so the exchanges below are based on the recollections of six individuals familiar with the testimony.
Bahar asked Paronto which branch of the military he had served in before his work with the CIA.
When Paronto responded that he’d been an Army Ranger, Bahar asked about the rules for defying orders in the Army. He asked Paronto if he routinely disregarded his superiors during his time as a Ranger.
Paronto was furious, but Bahar continued with a line of questioning that implied Paronto and his colleagues might be guilty of insubordination.
“He was trying to pin [Paronto] down on—‘So you disobeyed an order,’ ” recalls Geist, who was seated next to Paronto. “It was uncalled for.”
The accusatory tone of the questions did not end when Republican staff took over. Two top GOP staffers began to grill the witnesses about whether they had met with any members of Congress before their appearance before the committee.
The witnesses mentioned their meetings with Devin Nunes, an admission that generated additional inquiries and an implication that Nunes might have been guilty of witness tampering. The questioning continued.
Q: Anyone else?
A: The speaker.
Q: What speaker?
A: The speaker of the House. John Boehner.
The words filled the room until they were replaced by an anxious, apprehensive silence.
“Yeah, that ended the questioning pretty quickly,” says Paronto.
Was it somehow inappropriate for Boehner and Nunes to have spoken to the CIA officers about their experiences? Susan Phalen, the spokesman for the committee, seemed to chastise Nunes but not Boehner. “It was not inappropriate for any witness to have contacted or met with a member of Congress before their testimony before the committee. It is inappropriate for a member of a committee conducting an investigation into an event to discuss evidence or testimony with a witness prior to that witness’s appearance before the committee.”
To date, the committee has heard from fewer than a third of the U.S. government officials who were on the ground in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. If the committee has subpoenaed any of them, as Rogers threatened to do to the authors of 13 Hours, it has not resulted in any additional witness testimony.
Late in the afternoon of November 26, 2014, one of the CIA officers, John Tiegen, postponed the beginning of his Thanksgiving holiday for what we had agreed would be a brief interview.
Tiegen is soft-spoken and a man of few words. Testifying before the committee, he answered the questions he was asked and volunteered little else. In an hourlong special about 13 Hours with Bret Baier of Fox News, Tiegen sat for a joint interview with Paronto and Geist. Again, he said little, but he produced the interview’s most memorable moment when Baier asked him about having to watch as the bodies of his two dead colleagues were dumped from the roof of a two-story building so that they could be returned to the United States. Tiegen tried to answer but couldn’t speak.
When we interviewed him last month, we started with the obvious question: “What did you think of the report from the House Intelligence Committee?”
He told us, in great detail, and after a nearly page-by-page deconstruction of the report that lasted almost 90 minutes, the interview ended. Tiegen pointed out dozens of things that he said were mistakes or mischaracterizations. Some of them, he acknowledged, were inconsequential and had little impact on the narrative other than to diminish its overall credibility.
At one point, the report describes a member of the diplomatic security service taking fire as he entered a window of the diplomatic compound early in the attack. “If he was taking fire there, he’s dead,” says Tiegen. The window is so located that it cannot be seen from a distance. “That window is in a place where it’s impossible to take fire unless the shooter is within about 10 feet. He’d be dead.”
But some of the problems in the report were more significant and, to Tiegen, deeply personal. The report attempts to settle the much-debated question whether anyone on the ground that night was given an order to “stand down”—to abort an attempted rescue before it began. The report resolves the debate, as it does virtually every disputed point, in favor of the intelligence community leadership.
“Although some security officers voiced a greater urgency to depart for the [diplomatic compound], no officer at CIA was ever told to stand down,” the report concludes.
This is categorically false, says Tiegen. “I was told to stand down. [The chief of base] was looking directly into my eyes when he said it. He used those words.”
Why wasn’t this in the report? Good question. Tiegen doesn’t remember whether he was asked directly about the alleged stand-down order when he testified, but he insists he would have been clear about it if he had been. Others familiar with his testimony tell us that, while there was a discussion of the delay before Tiegen and his team left the CIA annex to attempt a rescue at the diplomatic compound, no one asked Tiegen directly if he had been told to stand down.
Tiegen expressed bemused frustration at the sentence summarizing the evidence supporting the conclusion that there was no stand-down order. According to the report, “the evidence from eyewitness testimony, ISR [drone] video footage, and closed-circuit television recordings provides no support for the allegation that there was any stand-down order.”
“The drones and building surveillance cameras don’t have audio. How could they possibly provide evidence one way or the other?” Tiegen asked.
And the report gets the eyewitness testimony wrong, he says, when it claims that “one officer felt that the 21-minute delay was too long” but dismisses his concerns because, the authors write, his testimony on the timeline is “internally inconsistent” and contradicted by others.
It’s simply not the case that only one officer felt that the delay was too long. Again, the committee did not release the transcripts of the hearings featuring the CIA officers, so we don’t know exactly how they testified. But if they said then what they’re saying now, at least four of them believed the delay was too long. “One officer?” says Tiegen. “I felt it was too long. Jack and DB did, too.” Paronto says that while he did not hear the words “stand down,” that’s what they were told to do. He remembers testifying that Ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith would likely still be alive if his team had been allowed to leave earlier.
Paronto and Geist are frustrated by the report, too.
“I try to take the high road on it,” says Geist. “But it’s ironic that Mike Rogers shook my hand and said: ‘Thanks for coming in, I found you guys very credible.’ If we were so credible, why did he write a report that ignored so much of what we said?”
“I would like to sit down with Rogers and go over the report line by line and have him defend what’s in there. He couldn’t do it.”
On May 20, 2013, four of the CIA officers who had fought to repel the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi arrived at the grounds of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Tiegen, Paronto, Geist, and “Jack” had returned to Washington to honor two of the men who had fought and died in those attacks, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Shortly before the service began, an agency representative approached the four and asked them for a moment of their time. They were led away from the public gathering space near the CIA museum through one office, then through another, until they finally arrived at a back room far removed from the quiet murmurings that preceded the ceremony.
When the door shut behind them, a CIA official handed each man a small packet of papers and with very little explanation asked them, one by one, to review and sign the documents. As the men began to read the papers they’d been handed it did not take long for them to understand what was happening. The documents were nondisclosure agreements, and several of the CIA officers quickly concluded that they were meant to send a message.
Geist, who was moving to a new job at the agency, says he had always assumed he’d have to sign another NDA and didn’t think much of the request. His colleagues had another view.
“That was a bunch of bulls—,” says Paronto. “We were pissed. We didn’t have anyone outside the agency there with us—no lawyers, no one. That’s just not right.”
The men quickly signed the papers, in part because they were already covered by existing NDAs and in part, they say, so that they wouldn’t be late for the ceremony. After the memorial service, the men stopped for drinks and remembered their fallen comrades in a less formal way. Paronto says it didn’t take long for the NDAs to come up.
“I remember Jack sitting there—he looks at us and says: ‘That was pretty f—d up, wasn’t it?’ ”
Two months later, on August 1, 2013, CNN aired an hourlong special on Benghazi that reported, among other things, that the CIA “is going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing remains a secret.” Among those efforts, according to CNN, the CIA was asking Benghazi survivors to sign additional nondisclosure agreements. There was no mention of the memorial service.
Two days after the CNN investigation aired, we obtained a letter that the new CIA director, John Brennan, had sent to all CIA-affiliated personnel who were on the ground in Benghazi during the attacks. The letter was dated May 30, 2013, some eight months after the attacks.
We were given the letter as part of an obvious attempt to push back on the CNN special. The letter, as we reported on August 3, 2013, “conveyed a message the CIA leadership was willing to support and facilitate communications between the CIA employees involved in the Benghazi attacks and congressional oversight committees.”
Our coverage initially made no mention of the NDAs at the memorial service for Woods and Doherty because our sources had never mentioned them.
As we continued to follow the Benghazi saga, the story changed repeatedly.
First, the claim was that there had been no effort whatsoever to keep anyone from talking, that no one was asked to sign an additional nondisclosure agreement, and that anyone suggesting otherwise was lying. When presented with evidence that some CIA officers involved in Benghazi were asked to sign additional NDAs, the story changed. Okay, maybe some officers were asked to sign additional NDAs, but those NDAs were standard operating procedure. When presented with claims that some of the NDAs were legally unnecessary, the story changed again. Okay, it’s possible some of the NDAs were redundant, but they had nothing to do with Benghazi. But when presented with evidence that some Benghazi officers were asked to sign NDAs at the memorial service honoring CIA officers killed in Benghazi, the story changed once more. Okay, but the NDAs didn’t actually mention Benghazi, and they were necessary in order to process payments for the officers to attend the memorial service.
That is apparently the final position of the CIA, as reflected in the House Intelligence Committee report. The report acknowledges that the memorial service might have contributed to the “perception” that the NDAs were related to Benghazi and acknowledges that three of the CIA officers testified that they found the request “odd.” But the report nonetheless concludes that the requests, however “ill-timed,” were in no way “improper.”
Paronto says he told the committee he didn’t feel “pressure” to sign the NDA and didn’t find it intimidating. “F— no, you don’t intimidate me,” he says. But he says the committee is playing semantic games. “It was very odd, since I hadn’t signed one in six years and then had to sign two in a few months. And when I say ‘odd’ I mean of course we were under ‘pressure’ to sign.”
Zaid told us: “The request, indeed demand, by CIA to have its security team members execute new NDAs was entirely out of the norm. The documents were legally unnecessary as the team was already bound by prior NDAs and any reasonable interpretation was that it was intended as an explicit reminder not to speak, if not implicit threat. I am dumbfounded that the committee is not troubled by that fact.” Zaid adds, “I told committee members and staff that based on 20 years of experience with the CIA there was no reason they had to sign the agreements.” Zaid’s claim is not in the report.
On November 15, 2012, Michael Morell testified for several hours before the House Intelligence Committee. Morell had been elevated to acting CIA director after the resignation of David Petraeus six days earlier and was eager to keep the job. Despite repeated questions about who had changed the talking points prepared for members of the committee, Morell never acknowledged any involvement. The talking points became controversial after Susan Rice relied on them during her appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows five days after the Benghazi attacks. Rice’s presentation to the public was inaccurate in virtually every key detail.
Representative Peter King told reporters afterwards that none of the senior U.S. intelligence officials who appeared before the committee that day had admitted editing the talking points.
A Reuters report described the testimony. “When U.S. intelligence officials testified behind closed doors two weeks ago, they were asked point blank whether they had altered the talking points on which U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice based her comments about the Benghazi attacks that have turned into a political firestorm. . . . Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, acting CIA Director Michael Morell and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen each said no, according to two congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.”
A partial transcript released last month along with the House Intelligence Committee report suggests that the questions weren’t quite that direct. But what is indisputable—both in contemporaneous accounts and the transcript—is that even as lawmakers sought to understand who changed the talking points, Morell did nothing to help them.
“I’m not sure he misled us as opposed to not being as forthcoming as he could have been,” says Representative Heck.
A similar scenario unfolded before a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee the same day, where much of the session also focused on how the talking points were changed. Again, no top U.S. intelligence official, including Morell, acknowledged any role in making the changes that turned a largely accurate, forward-leaning summary of the Benghazi attacks into a vague, inaccurate, and misleading account of the attacks.
For eight months—from October 2012 through May 2013—questions about who changed the talking points were at the center of the Benghazi controversy. In private meetings with lawmakers, both at CIA headquarters and on Capitol Hill, Morell stated directly that he had nothing to do with the changes.
One such meeting took place at 10:00 a.m. on November 27, when Morell accompanied Rice, rumored to be Obama’s top choice to serve as the next secretary of state, to an appointment with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte. The senators hadn’t been expecting Morell. Rice had been the subject of considerable public criticism for her misleading comments on the talk shows.
According to Graham, Rice told the senators that she’d brought Morell to address the talking points, which she had relied on for her appearances. “She said: ‘He will help you understand what was going on with the talking points,’ ” Graham told The Weekly Standard.
That was the first question of the meeting: Who changed the talking points? Morell told the senators something they had not heard before. “He told us that the FBI made the changes because they were the ones on the ground talking to people and they didn’t want to jeopardize their investigation,” Graham recalled.
The claim wasn’t true. Graham called FBI leadership to share Morell’s accusation with them. “They went apesh—,” he recalls, and denied, without qualification, that they had made the changes. Graham reported this to the CIA, and hours later, a representative from the agency called the senators to indicate that Morell had “misspoken” and that the CIA had made the changes.
To state the obvious: It’s not misspeaking to deny responsibility for something you’ve done and blame someone else. It’s lying.
This was Morell’s Oreo moment. Who finished the cookies? he was asked. And Morell, with black smudges across his face and crumbs hanging from his lips, said: Somebody else.
For months, and despite repeated questions, lawmakers remained in the dark about how the talking points had been edited. The Obama administration refused to provide documents related to the talking points that Congress was demanding.
The administration’s intransigence softened when the White House indicated that President Obama wanted to appoint John Brennan the next CIA director, and Republicans threatened to block the nomination unless they were given access to the documents they’d been seeking. The administration made available more than 100 pages of emails on a “read-only” basis—meaning House and Senate intelligence members and staffers could examine them in a secure facility but could not make copies or otherwise take possession of them.
Those emails confirmed what many lawmakers had long suspected: Despite his unwillingness to acknowledge his role in testimony and despite his repeated denials, Mike Morell played a major role in changing the talking points.
None of the facts above are in serious question. Indeed, when the White House released the emails, Morell conducted the background briefings for reporters on behalf of the administration. He told them that he had taken it upon himself to edit the talking points and assured reporters that it was merely coincidental that his changes tracked closely with complaints from top officials at the State Department and the White House.
A report by Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee accused Morell of misleading Congress. His dishonesty was so cavalier that several senators, including two of the top-ranking Republicans on the committee, ranking member Saxby Chambliss and incoming chairman Richard Burr, took the unusual step of going on the record to accuse Morell of rank deception.
“I went back and reviewed some of his testimony the other day and he’s gotten himself in a real box,” Chambliss said last spring. “It’s really strange. I’ve always thought Mike was a straight-up guy, gave us good briefings—factual, straightforward. I mean, this has really been strange the last few weeks—all this now being uncovered.”
Burr said he went down the line, asking all of the top intelligence officials at the hearing who had changed the word “attacks” to “demonstrations.” Morell denied making the change. “I think that Mike answered what he felt he was asked,” says Burr. “But there was clearly enough that he knew that he could have shortcut this process.”
Graham was more blunt. “He knew when he met with us that it wasn’t the FBI who had changed the talking points. He lied.”
Remarkably, the House Intelligence Committee report mentions none of this. Readers learning about the “talking points” controversy from the body of the report alone would have no idea that Morell had been caught misleading Congress—passively, by failing to acknowledge his role when asked about it, and actively, by blaming others for revisions he had made himself.
The report concludes only: “Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell made significant changes to the talking points.”
Not only does the committee report fail to include the history of Morell’s untruthfulness, it rather inexplicably treats Morell as a reliable fact witness on the very subject about which he’d been caught lying. Indeed, much of the section of the report that deals with the talking points assumes the veracity of a thoroughly discredited witness.
Morell is now an adviser at Beacon Global Strategies, a consultancy run by, among others, Philippe Reines, a top adviser to Hillary Clinton, and Michael Allen, who served until August 2013 as the staff director for Mike Rogers on the House Intelligence Committee.
The House Intelligence Committee report concludes that there “was no intelligence failure prior to the attacks.” The claim itself is not persuasive, and the report, in its efforts to substantiate it, makes clear that something close to the opposite is true: The intelligence failure on Benghazi continues to this day.
By any reasonable standard, there were intelligence failures leading up to the night of September 11, 2012. And these failures made possible the terrorists’ success. The U.S. intelligence community did not detect the assaults on the U.S. mission and annex beforehand. If it had, four Americans would likely be alive today.
Why do the authors of the House Intelligence Committee report deny the intelligence failures? They write: “In the months prior, the [intelligence community] provided intelligence about previous attacks and the increased threat environment in Benghazi, but the [intelligence community] did not have specific, tactical warning of the September 11 attacks.”
The committee’s reasoning is specious. By this standard, the only way the intelligence bureaucracy can fail is by ignoring or otherwise mishandling intelligence in its possession that indicates a pending attack. But the failure to generate a “specific, tactical warning” before an attack is an intelligence failure. The lack of forewarning indicates significant blind spots about our enemies’ intentions. The general warnings issued before September 11, 2012, did not stop the terrorists from executing their specific designs. The intelligence community plainly failed to stop a terrorist attack in Benghazi.
It is worth noting that the House Intelligence Committee’s formulation could equally apply to the far more devastating September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Beforehand, the intelligence community “provided intelligence about previous attacks and the increased threat environment,” but did not offer a “specific, tactical warning” of the hijackings. Yet, no one can seriously claim that there weren’t intelligence failures leading up to 9/11.
The report’s conclusion becomes even more problematic in light of the facts recognized in the body of the report. Remarkably, the intelligence failure is ongoing. The intelligence community still can’t answer basic questions about what transpired.
“To this day,” the report reads, “significant intelligence gaps regarding the identities, affiliations and motivations of the attackers remain.” The report points to a September 23, 2012, intelligence assessment authored by the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center that noted the “fragmentary and contradictory reporting about who organized the attack” and said it is “unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control and if the extremist group leaders directed their members to participate in the attacks or the attackers did so on their own.” There is no indication in the report that these key issues—including the identification of a possible ringleader—have been resolved.
According to the report, the intelligence community still isn’t sure how much planning the terrorists did. The report notes: “The sophistication of the attacks does not necessarily imply lengthy pre-planning.” Of course, considerable “pre-planning” is possible. The intelligence community doesn’t know; it is guessing.
The “intelligence assessments continue to evolve to this day,” reads another sentence in the report, “and the investigations into the motivations of the individual attackers are still ongoing.” While it is noteworthy that the House Intelligence Committee claims the intelligence community still doesn’t know what motivated all the attackers, the question of inspiration is something of a red herring. Several al Qaeda groups took part in the attack; al Qaeda’s motivations for attacking U.S. interests were first set forth plainly almost two decades ago.
In conjunction with the report, the House Intelligence Committee released partially redacted transcripts of its hearings with some U.S. intelligence officials. Reading through the transcripts, one quickly sees that at least some of the “significant intelligence gaps” still plaguing the Benghazi investigation are rooted in the lack of human intelligence. Without sources inside the organizations responsible, or the ability to interrogate individual attackers, the intelligence community cannot piece together anything close to a complete picture.
During a hearing on November 15, 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lamented the fact that the intelligence community had not yet been able to interrogate any Benghazi attackers. “It would be very useful actually to have the opportunity to interrogate some of the participants, in terms of what we don’t know,” Clapper said. “We don’t know who commanded this or who controlled it. There are still a lot of things we don[’t] know.”
Matthew Olsen of the National Counterterrorism Center elaborated on Clapper’s point, saying, “We don’t know the motivations of the attackers. We don’t know exactly—we don’t know command and control. We know some of the individuals, we don’t know all of the individuals. And we don’t know exactly how much pre-planning there was.”
The situation has not improved much since Clapper and Olsen testified. The report notes that the intelligence community has produced six assessments identifying the attackers. The “most recent of those six assessments” identifies “85 individuals who had some level of participation in the attacks and an additional 4 known extremists who are affiliated with the suspected attackers.”
Only 1 of these 89 individuals is in U.S. custody—a Libyan known as Abu Khattala. It is likely that the United States has participated, in some capacity, in the interrogations of the few other Benghazi suspects who have been held by foreign governments. But most of the attackers have never had to answer to any authority.
The Obama administration has been lax in its efforts to kill or capture the dozens of terrorists who assaulted the U.S. mission and annex. (Several Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee, including Chairman Rogers, make this point in their “additional views” appended to the report.) The administration has also failed to stop some of the Benghazi attackers who were held abroad from being set free by allied governments. This is a failure of American leadership, first and foremost, but it has undoubtedly contributed to the intelligence community’s “gaps.”
The more we learn about the one Benghazi suspect in U.S. custody, the bigger the intelligence failures before the attack appear to be—and the report’s insistence that there weren’t any becomes even more inexplicable.
In October, the Justice Department released a “superseding indictment” in Khattala’s case. The materials released by the House Intelligence Committee make it clear that the CIA was using the Benghazi annex to track extremists, including al Qaeda operatives, in eastern Libya. But according to the indictment, the jihadists were also hunting the CIA. This spy-vs.-terrorist, terrorist-vs.-spy part of the story—which the indictment cites as a main reason for the attacks—is entirely missing from the House Intelligence Committee’s supposedly comprehensive investigation.
At some point, according to the indictment, Khattala learned that there was an “American facility in Benghazi posing as a diplomatic post,” and “he believed the facility was actually being used to collect intelligence.” Khattala “viewed U.S. intelligence actions in Benghazi as illegal,” and “he was therefore going to do something about this facility.” Khattala wanted to oust the United States from Benghazi “through the use of force and the threat of force.” The indictment includes another reason for the attack that has received little attention: Khattala and his fellow jihadists wanted to “plunder property from the Mission and Annex.” Shortly before midnight, Khattala “entered the Mission compound and supervised the plunder of material from the Mission’s Office, including documents, maps and computers containing sensitive information about the location of the [CIA’s] Annex.” Khattala then absconded to an Ansar al Sharia camp, where he is believed to have taken inventory of the stolen materials. Not long after, the CIA’s annex came under fire.
Several parts of the indictment stand out, especially when contrasted with the committee’s report. The indictment makes it clear that Khattala learned of the CIA’s covert footprint, meaning the agency failed to keep its presence secret. This failure in tradecraft was not mentioned by the committee, but it is an intelligence failure. That Khattala and his fellow jihadists wanted to “plunder” materials from the U.S. mission and annex adds to the evidence of “pre-planning,” which the committee also failed to note. And the indictment makes clear that Khattala obtained “sensitive information,” raising the possibility that some of America’s secrets (beyond the location of the CIA’s annex) were compromised. The report makes no mention of Khattala’s role in stealing the materials, although it is possible that it is included in one of the few lines redacted in the section dealing with Khattala.
The allegations contained in the indictment further undermine the notion that the House Intelligence Committee has conducted a thorough investigation. The indictment has been a matter of public record since October, but the committee did not even bother to incorporate it into its own report.
At its core, the Benghazi story is a simple one. Multiple terrorist organizations belonging to al Qaeda’s international network attacked State Department and CIA facilities on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But President Obama and his top advisers blamed the violence on an anti-Islam Internet video.
The House Intelligence Committee’s report confirms that from the very hours after the attack the intelligence community had evidence indicating that al Qaeda was “likely,” “probably,” or “possibl[y]” involved. An unidentified CIA officer who spoke during one of the committee’s hearings explained that the agency “first indicated that Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qa’ida members, [and] AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] members were linked to the attack in a wire that was available to this committee on the 12th.” Olsen, the former counterterrorism director, testified that he talked about “AQIM [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] individuals” during a briefing on September 13. And, according to Morell, intelligence analysts concluded on September 13, “based on [signals intelligence, or intercepts], that extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida were involved in the attacks.”
The evidence of al Qaeda’s role in the Benghazi attacks has since only grown stronger.
Despite this, President Obama and his closest advisers have consistently defined al Qaeda down. And Benghazi is a perfect example of this pattern of behavior. The president’s erroneous descriptions of the Benghazi attackers continued long after September 2012.
In a speech at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013, Obama described the Benghazi attackers as an example of the “localized threats” we face. They were “local operatives,” who may operate in “loose affiliation with regional networks,” Obama said. But there was no hint from Obama that many of the attackers belong to al Qaeda’s international terrorist network.
The House Intelligence Committee report confirms that members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN), Ansar al Sharia, and the Abu Abaydah Ibn Jarah Battalion (UJB) all participated in the assault. There is nothing “local” about these groups, nor are they loosely affiliated. Collectively, these organizations had a presence that stretched from North and West Africa through the heart of Arabia and the Levant into Iraq.
AQIM and AQAP are regional branches of al Qaeda. Their leaders have sworn personal bayats (oaths of allegiance) to Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, and they remain loyal to him to this day. The head of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, is a protégé of Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri named Wuhayshi al Qaeda’s global general manager in the summer of 2013.
At the time of the Benghazi attack, AQI (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq) was a formal branch of al Qaeda as well. AQI has since split in two, with the bulk of the organization evolving into the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria. The remainder of what was once AQI is now known as Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is al Qaeda’s branch in the Levant and openly subordinate to Zawahiri.
The MJN was named for its founder, Muhammad Jamal, an Egyptian who was first trained by al Qaeda in the late 1980s and swore bayat to Zawahiri years ago. When Jamal was captured in late 2012, Egyptian authorities discovered his correspondence with Zawahiri. Jamal wrote of his operations in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere. During one House Intelligence Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence Clapper described the MJN as “an al Qaeda in Egypt upstart.” Jamal was seeking to build his own branch of al Qaeda, under Zawahiri’s leadership, when some of his men helped launch the attacks on the U.S. mission and annex in Benghazi.
Ansar al Sharia (AAS) is based in eastern Libya, but has well-established ties to al Qaeda terrorists throughout the region. In mid-November, the U.N. added AAS to its al Qaeda sanctions list, noting that AQIM supports AAS’s suicide operations. The leader of AAS in Derna, another Libyan city known as a hotbed of extremism, is a former Guantánamo detainee named Sufyan Ben Qumu. According to leaked files prepared at Guantánamo, U.S. military and intelligence officials found that Ben Qumu was an al Qaeda operative. Information found on a laptop owned by the al Qaeda terrorist responsible for financing the 9/11 attacks noted that Ben Qumu was receiving a monthly stipend from al Qaeda. The House Intelligence Committee report concludes that Ben Qumu “probably played some role in the [Benghazi] attacks, even though reliable intelligence indicates that Qumu was not in Benghazi on the night of the attacks.” The Abu Abaydah Ibn Jarah Battalion (UJB) was led by the aforementioned Abu Khattala, who merged the group with AAS in 2011.
Another Benghazi suspect briefly mentioned in the House report is Faraj al Chalabi, who was known to be an al Qaeda operative as early as the 1990s. The report does not note that Chalabi is believed to have served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. According to U.S. intelligence officials we contacted, Chalabi is also suspected of taking materials from the U.S. compound in Benghazi to Pakistan, where he met with al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
Even a cursory examination of the parties responsible shows just how misleading President Obama’s descriptions of the attackers have been.
Oddly, the report says that Qaddafi loyalists were also among the Benghazi attackers. The only support for this assertion is an article containing a spurious claim by a Libyan official immediately after the attack. No other evidence is introduced to support the involvement of Qaddafi loyalists, who were, of course, fighting against the al Qaeda coalition that carried out the Benghazi assaults.
The name Wissam Bin Hamid is also missing from the House Intelligence Committee report. This is noteworthy because multiple published accounts have explored his role in the security failures surrounding the attacks. In August 2012, a Defense Department analysis included a discussion of Bin Hamid’s ties to al Qaeda’s network in Libya. Bin Hamid is a veteran of the jihad in Iraq, where he likely fought on behalf of al Qaeda or an allied group. But Bin Hamid’s suspicious past did not stop him from meeting with State Department officials just two days before the Benghazi attacks to discuss security. A declassified State Department cable identifies Bin Hamid as a leading member of the Libyan Shield, a militia that both the U.S. and Libyan governments relied on for security.
After the attacks in Benghazi, Bin Hamid spoke openly with reporters, granting interviews to the New York Times and Washington Post, among others. Bin Hamid acknowledges his presence at the U.S. mission shortly after the attacks started. He claims, improbably, that he merely watched the attacks as they unfolded, standing alongside Abu Khattala, the one person in U.S. custody for his role in the attacks. The House Intelligence Committee report notes: “Ample intelligence reporting from multiple reporting indicates Khattala’s role in the attacks,” but it does not connect him to Bin Hamid.
The report also notes that a security team from Tripoli, comprising five Americans from the CIA and two from the U.S. military, made their way to Benghazi. They originally intended to “locate and rescue Ambassador Stevens.” The House Intelligence Committee reports that the Tripoli team, while “holding” at the Benghazi airport, “was approached by about 30 militiamen from different groups offering assistance,” but it was “not entirely clear . . . which groups were present, which were trustworthy, and which posed a threat.” According to the New York Times, Bin Hamid was one of the militiamen who met the Tripoli team at the Benghazi airport.
In all, the Tripoli team was delayed for approximately three and a half hours at the Benghazi airport. The circumstances surrounding the delay are not made clear in the House report.
“After much review, [the House Intelligence Committee] uncovered no evidence that the Libyan Shield militia played a role in the final attack [on the CIA’s annex] or tipped off the attackers of the Tripoli Team’s presence,” the report concludes. It cites some evidence that members of the Libyan Shield were helpful during the attack. But it does not account for Bin Hamid, a known Libyan Shield leader. The report does not address Bin Hamid’s presence at the U.S. mission shortly after the first attack began, or his association with Abu Khattala. Nor does the report address claims that Bin Hamid met up with the Tripoli team at the Benghazi airport, where the Americans were delayed for an inordinate amount of time.
Today, Bin Hamid openly fights alongside Ansar al Sharia, one of the al Qaeda groups responsible for the Benghazi attacks. Ansar al Sharia advertises Bin Hamid’s leadership role in videos and pictures disseminated on its official Twitter feed.
The absence of bin Hamid, the exclusion of the Khattala indictment, the whitewashing of intelligence failures, the spinning of NDAs, the reliance on discredited witnesses, and the mistreatment of credible ones—these are just some of the problems with the House Intelligence Committee’s report on Benghazi.
The report seeks to bring an end to the committee’s work on Benghazi, but it’s clear that in this, too, it fails. A spokesman for Devin Nunes says the incoming chairman “is looking forward to cooperating with Representative Gowdy’s select committee, which will be the definitive report on the events surrounding the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi.”
Defenders of the Obama administration have suggested that the intelligence committee’s report makes the work of the select committee unnecessary, but a senior Republican leadership aide, reached on the day the intelligence committee’s report was released, made the opposite argument.
He said: “Rogers proved today why we needed a special committee.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.