Benghazi Narratives Continue To Unfold, Contradict

Steve Inskeep talks with David Ignatius of the Washington Post about his recent story on intelligence reports on the attack in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans were killed, and initial CIA reports appear to support the Obama administration's narrative. Sharp questions about who knew what, when, will likely arise in Monday night's presidential debate.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. We heard of the suspected link between Lebanon's latest violence and the regime in Syria, whose repression is likely to come up in tonight's presidential debate. Libya may well come up, as it did in the last debate. The killing of four Americans in Benghazi has drawn criticism from presidential candidate Mitt Romney from September 11, the day it happened. Days after the incident, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice made a fiercely criticized statement that linked the attack to protests in other countries over an offensive video.

AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: Our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.

INSKEEP: The administration has had to revise that statement more than once. There've been questions ever since over how spontaneous the attack could've been, who was really involved, why they acted.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post has been reporting on that. He's in our studios.

David, good morning.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So what did U.S. intelligence officials tell Susan Rice before that statement that's gotten her in so much trouble?

IGNATIUS: Well, surprisingly, the statement she was working from, the CIA's talking points that were prepared September 15, the day before she recorded all those interviews, said - and I'll just briefly quote from the language in this document - "The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo." That's the very assertion that she's gotten in so much trouble for. I think in light of current information, now several weeks later, it would be a somewhat different account. When asked a senior intelligence official what would you change in that statement? He said I'd take out the word spontaneous and I'd substitute opportunistic.

But the fact is that Susan Rice, at the moment she made this very controversial statement, was working straight from a CIA document that had been given to her. It was unclassified. It was given to me and it seemed relevant to this whole debate.

INSKEEP: OK, so that explains the statement that seemed inexplicable at the time. But they're still at underlying question which you also tried to investigate. Which is what really happened in Benghazi? Even all these weeks later, does the United States really know?

IGNATIUS: That's the strange and I think telling fact about this, is how hard it is even for these intelligence professionals, using all their tools of surveillance - overhead voice, et cetera - to be certain. The reason that they think that there is a link with what was happening in Cairo to the events later that night, the night of September 11 in Libya, is because they have monitoring of communications among some of the protesters who ended up - some of the attackers is the word..

INSKEEP: They were militants which is why they were monitored.

IGNATIUS: ...who ended up at the embassy but they were monitored watching the protests in Cairo live, talking about them among themselves. And then not long after that they were at the consulate in Benghazi preparing this attack. What motivated them? Did they see this as a trigger? Apparent answer is that the U.S., even these weeks later, doesn't know; can't analyze from the information it had.

And also, people note that there were several different strands of attackers who were there. There were probably about four from Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, a very dangerous group. There were others from a militia in Benghazi, the Ansar al-Sharia militia. There were others from an Egyptian-inspired group. They were altogether in a jumble. Some of the people who went into the consulate compound where looters; they didn't have any weapons, they just went to grab stuff that they could find.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, so we have confused situation here that people are still sorting out. Do U.S. intelligence officials concede that perhaps they should have had more resources there, had a better handle on what was going on?

IGNATIUS: I think that they have been embarrassed that the quality of their intelligence, both real-time as these things were unfolding and since has not been what the American people would expect. They protest, this is a dangerous - in Benghazi is a place that's torn up by militias, competing militias. And it's been very hard to get FBI forensic experts to the scene of these events, so that they could sift the clues and come up with a better account of what happened.

Intelligence officials have been trying to put together a video that will link this. It will combine overhead images, sounds, source reports that they had and they'll show that, I suspect, to the congressional intelligence committees. But that video I suspect is going to be somewhat choppy. And it illustrates a fact about intelligence collection, which is this is so imperfect.

You're dealing in little shards and fragments. You use what you get. But often what you get isn't anything like a complete account, certainly not of the motivations of the people who do these events.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius at The Washington Post, we've just got a few seconds left. But you also write about Iran. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that Iran had agreed in principle to some kind of discussions with the U.S. over its nuclear program. It's been denied by everybody. In a few seconds, what do the Iranians want as they're under pressure from sanctions at this moment?

IGNATIUS: What I would take from this weekend's stories, back and forth, is that both Iran and the United States are now interested in this confrontation that is because of economic sanctions, painful for Iran; interested in direct face-to-face negotiations to explore the nuclear issue. I think those negotiations...

INSKEEP: OK.

IGNATIUS: ...are coming. And despite the denial, I'd expect them after the election.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius of The Washington Post. His novels include ?Blood Money." You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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