Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Benghazi still not a scandal

By Frank Moraes 

So what is this stuff about Benghazi I wrote about earlier? Last Thursday, CNN broke a story suggesting that the CIA was running guns from Libya to Syria out of the Benghazi proto-embassy. This, supposedly explains the administration's "cover up" of the attack. The big problem I see here is that the story is an answer to a question no reasonable person is asking. But okay, I'll bite.

CNN claims that they've learned that "dozens" of CIA operatives were "on the ground" in Benghazi the night of the attack. I want to start with the vague number "dozens." It literally means at least 24. Yet the article later claims that there were only 35 people total at the compound and that there were 21 at the annex, which is claimed to have been run by the CIA. Still, 21 is a lot of people.

But why would this make us believe that it had (1) anything to do with gun running and (2) anything to do with the attack? CNN doesn't even have a source for the first connection. All it says is this, "Speculation on Capitol Hill has included the possibility the U.S. agencies operating in Benghazi were secretly helping to move surface-to-air missiles out of Libya, through Turkey, and into the hands of Syrian rebels." Note all the weasel words here: speculation, included, possibility. As for the second connection there is nothing at all.

The article also gives major time to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). He believes that we need to have public hearings with everyone who was in Benghazi the night of the attack. I'm all for that, but I don't think that Wolf is an honest broker here. This is a man, after all, who thinks that Edward Snowden is a traitor. He's said some nice things against the surveillance state, but I suspect if a Republican where in the White House, he wouldn't even go that far.

It seems to me just another Republican witch hunt with the vaguest of targets. After all, even the CNN article provides no reason to believe that anything the CIA was doing had anything to do with the attack. So what would Wolf's hearings be but an open ended opportunity for the Republicans to snipe at the Democratic administration?

The strangest part of the CNN report is its discussion of CIA agents being given lie detector tests. According to three unnamed sources, people who were in Benghazi have been tested much more than usual regarding leaks to the press. There's a fundamental question here, though: wouldn't these unnamed sources be afraid they will be caught by all of this internal surveillance? Over the weekend, Max Ehrenfreund discussed this part of the story in more detail:

A much simpler explanation for the frequency of the polygraphs is that this administration is panicky. They have gone to absurd lengths to keep personnel from talking. As McClatchy reported, the administration's "Insider Threat" program, launched in response to Pfc. Bradley Manning's leaks, requires all federal employees, not just those working with sensitive information, to keep a careful eye on one another. Personnel are encouraged to report not just unauthorized disclosures, but any signs of psychological stress, including divorce, debt, or frustrations with colleagues. The logic is that these conditions can be what pushes a person like Manning to take information outside of an agency...

I think Friedersdorf gives the CIA too much credit. He assumes that the frequency of the polygraphs must have a rational motivation. What we've seen with this administration is that secrecy engenders a kind of institutional pathology, in which chiefs of agencies feel compelled to keep everything under wraps. The cause, I believe, is essentially political at a variety of levels. I would speculate that the Department of Education is involved in the Insider Threat program mainly because the administration thinks that if employees start chatting to the press, Republicans in Congress might find some reason to withhold the department's funding. The same is probably true inside the surveillance apparatus. Secrecy is how the National Security Agency was able to convert Total Information Awareness, the Bush administration program rejected by Congress, into PRISM.

I am open to there being something to this story. In particular, I think we should know if the CIA is running guns into Syria. But the whole Benghazi attack line is a bridge too far. How long is the press going to jump every time Republicans make another unsubstantiated claim? There is a law of information accumulation that goes along with the idea of entropy. If you gather enough information, eventually you will end up with contradictions. If you look for scandals long enough, you will eventually find something that looks kind of like a scandal -- whether it is or not. At this point, CNN and the Republicans are going to have to come up with a bit more than, "There were CIA agents in Benghazi and they might have been running guns."

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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