By Michael V. Hayden, CNN Contributor
Editor's note: Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as CIA director in 2006 and served until February 2009, is a principal with the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm. He serves on the boards of several defense firms and is a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University. Hayden is an adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
Even as last month's events in Benghazi, Libya, become clearer (it was a terrorist attack), the aftermath of Benghazi on American politics and on American policy is far from settled.
The immediate question is why did it take so long to characterize accurately what happened there?
Writing in The Daily Beast, respected diplomatic observer Leslie Gelb answers that question by reverting to a well-used theme when he blames current policy and political problems on the quality of the intelligence. Commenting on Ambassador Susan Rice's serial talk-show assertions that the Benghazi attack was "spontaneous," he opines that Rice's "mistake was taking the initial intelligence at face value."
Gelb reinforces his point by saying that he made the same mistake in his own op-ed by relying on "what the intelligence briefers told me." Odd that he would receive an intelligence briefing.
Equally odd, his assertion presumes that policymakers are simply passive clients of their intelligence officers. Did anyone challenge the video-inspired, spontaneous-event narrative with information like that reportedly revealed to Congress by Ambassador Pat Kennedy soon after the attack: that this was a complex and synchronized assault?
This theme of intelligence shortcomings was carried over by multiple government officials cited in a lengthy Wall Street Journal piece that outlined "shifting views within the intelligence community" as one source of the administration's problems.
According to the Journal's sources, early intelligence reports of an al Qaeda connection to the Benghazi attack were discounted by the White House, following the lead of the director of national intelligence.
"The intelligence community made me do it" defense is a bit peculiar given the aftermath of the flawed 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The outcome of that episode was a commitment by the intelligence community to give policymakers the benefit of the range of views within the community and to attach confidence levels to assessments.
One wonders what level of confidence (low, medium or high) the intelligence community attached to its judgment that the Benghazi attack was related to an anti-Islam video and spontaneous and how already emerging dissenting views arguing the attack was preplanned were presented to senior officials.
In any event, given the administration's existing narrative about its success against al Qaeda and the inherent attractiveness of the spontaneous attack plotline (a spontaneous attack would be neither predictable nor preventable and therefore less likely to invite blame for a lack of sufficient security), there were likely strong instincts in the White House to accept and publicize the original director of national intelligence assessment regardless of confidence levels or competing analysis.
Strong instincts, but not necessarily good instincts.