Is the New York Times engaging in some front-page pre-debate inoculation Monday on behalf of Obama regarding his administration's contradictory reaction to the Benghazi massacre? Reporter Eric Schmitt gave the administration the benefit of the doubt in its contradictory responses to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which it first blamed on a YouTube clip: "How the Gap Arose Between Talk and New Intelligence."
Schmitt forwarded fog-of-war-style excuses for the administration, but failed to mention Obama's United Nations speech on Sept. 25, a full two weeks after the attacks, in which the president still blamed the uprising on an anti-Mohammed YouTube clip.
Even as Susan E. Rice took to the Sunday talk shows last month to describe the Obama administration’s assessment of the Sept. 11 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, intelligence analysts suspected that the explanation was outdated.
Ms. Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, has said that the judgments she offered on the five talk shows on Sept. 16 came from talking points prepared by the C.I.A., which reckoned that the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans had resulted from a spontaneous mob that was angry about an anti-Islamic video that had set off protests elsewhere. That assessment, described to Ms. Rice in briefings the day before her television appearances, was based on intercepted communications, informants’ tips and Libyan press reports, officials said.
Schmitt excused the administration with a"fog of war" excuse.
Later that Sunday, though, American intelligence analysts were already sifting through new field reports that seemed to contradict the initial assessment. It would be several days, however, before the intelligence agencies changed their formal assessment based on those new reports, and informed administration officials about the change. Intelligence officials say such a lag is typical of the ever-changing process of piecing together shards of information into a coherent picture fit for officials’ public statements.
The gap between the talking points prepared for Ms. Rice and the contemporaneous field reports that seemed to paint a much different picture illustrates how the process of turning raw field reports, which officials say need to be vetted and assessed, into polished intelligence assessments can take days, long enough to make them outdated by the time senior American officials utter them.
Intelligence officials, alarmed that their work has been turned into a political football, defend their approach, noting that senior administration officials receive daily briefings that reflect the consensus of the nation’s array of intelligence agencies, but can also dip into the fast-moving stream of field reports, with the caveat that that information is incomplete and may be flat wrong.
Schmitt provided a timeline, partially cribbed from Friday's Wall Street Journal:
On Sept. 13, Ms. Rice and other cabinet-level officials were told about the assessment that there had been protests at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
“The first briefing was exactly as one would expect in the early aftermath of a crisis,” an American intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the continuing F.B.I. investigation of the assault. “It carefully laid out the full range of sparsely available information, relying on the best analysis available at the time.” Briefers said extremists were involved in attacks that appeared spontaneous.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, Ms. Rice summed up a common theme she voiced on all five television programs: “What this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what happened, transpired in Cairo,” where protesters angered by the video invaded the grounds of the American Embassy.
Critics say Ms. Rice overlooked that Al Qaeda might have been involved. But when asked by Bob Schieffer of CBS News about Al Qaeda’s possible role, Ms. Rice said: “It’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined and escalated the violence. Whether they were Al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or Al Qaeda itself, I think, is one of the things we’ll have to determine.”
That change in the intelligence community’s assessment did not happen until a series of reviews from Sept. 20 to Sept. 22, an American official said on Sunday. Some of the new information came from American officials evacuated from Benghazi on Sept. 12.
Schmitt failed to mention Obama's speech to the United Nations afterwards, on September 25, in which he was still blaming a Youtube video for inciting the massacre.
Presuming that the Wall Street Journal article Schmitt cited above is this one by James Rosen, it's much less sympathetic toward the Obama administration's response than is Schmitt. Here's a snippet:
In Tuesday night's debate with Mitt Romney, President Obama claimed to have "told" the American people that Benghazi was a terror attack the very next day, Sept. 12, when speaking from the Rose Garden. The assertion was untrue, despite moderator Candy Crowley's ruling to the contrary. The president had only spoken generally of terror attacks, and Benghazi would have been understood to fall under that umbrella only if it had been acknowledged as a terror attack.
On Sept. 12, that was not the administration's line. Not until his afternoon appearance on "The View" on Sept. 25 – the "two weeks" of delay that Mr. Romney alluded to in the debate – did the president offer Americans an explanation of Benghazi that made no reference to a protest over a video. The YouTube connection had figured prominently in his Benghazi pronouncements as late as Mr. Obama's Sept. 20 appearance on Univision, and even in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on the morning of Sept. 25.