Saturday, September 22, 2012

Who Knew, Redux

It doesn't take a foreign policy wonk to understand why the Obama Administration is so desperate to "spin" its version of how Islamic terrorists attacked the U.S. Consulate (and diplomatic safe house) in Benghazi, Libya almost two weeks ago, resulting in the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.  As the true details of that incident begin to emerge, one thing is clear: this is a security, intelligence and leadership debacle of the first magnitude.

Mr. Stevens and his colleagues didn't have to have to die--it's that simple.  There were warnings of a possible attack up to three days prior, from Libyan officials and Egyptian intelligence.  There are also indications that the Brits knew something was up and shared that information with us, but to no avail.  Ambassador Stevens, who reportedly told co-workers he "had a price on his head," elected to travel to the unsecure Benghazi facility, with no dedicated security detail.  However, it is unclear if Stevens received the latest threat information before setting out for the consulate.

And, it now evident that senior U.S. officials knew the Benghazi compound was under attack as it unfolded (emphasis ours).  According to media reports, President Obama was told of the assault between 90 minutes and three hours into the incident.  He later went to bed, before the fate of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues was determined.

But that timeline is predictably fuzzy.  Earlier this week, Libyan officials claimed that U.S. officials intercepted communications between Al Qaida's Libyan affiliate and members of the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia brigade discussing the planned attack.  So far, it has not been disclosed if those conversations came before, during or after the attacks on the consulate and the safe house, which unfolded over several hours.

In any event, there is reason to believe that Mr. Obama may have learned of events in Libya long before the three-hour mark, and here's why: reports of escalating threats to U.S. interests in the Middle East should have put the National Security Agency (and its global intercept capabilities) on heightened alert.

It's also worth noting that the U.S. (read: NSA) monitored several phone conversations between Al Qaida operatives and representatives of the Ansar al Sharia group.  During the calls, they discussed the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.  So far, U.S. officials have not revealed if the chatter was related to planning the assault, or if it occurred while the attack was in progress.

But let's assume that the conversations occurred just prior to the attack and while it unfolded.  We make this assumption (hoping) that if NSA had advance notice that our consulate was being targeted, protective measures would be implemented to safeguard our personnel.  Obviously, we cannot make this assumption with complete certainty; after all, the agency collects millions of bits of information on a daily basis.  There are delays in translation, and even with sophisticated data-mining and keyword search techniques, analysts don't always receive information required to provide timely warning.

Still, if we're reading the tea leaves correctly, it appears that NSA was monitoring terrorist communications for a period that included the actual attack on the consulate and the murder of Ambassador Stevens.  If that's the case, then the agency most likely issued its highest priority message traffic (known in the trade as FLASH/CRITICs).

These alerts, reserved for the most important global events, are supposed to be in the hands of the President--and other senior officials--within 10 minutes of receipt.  There are established guidelines for events considered worthy of a CRITIC, and NSA has sometimes rejected submissions from lower levels in the signals intelligence (SIGINT) community.  For example, when U.S. listening posts in Japan detected the shoot down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983, initial CRITICS sent to NSA were rejected, on the grounds of insufficient information.  However, as the situation became more clear, FLASH/CRITIC traffic was quickly forwarded to President Reagan and key members of his national security team.

Based on what we're hearing, it seems likely that President Obama was in receipt of similar messages on the night our consulate was breached and Ambassador Stevens was murdered, along with three other Americans.  And, if NSA was monitoring terrorist phone calls in the run-up to the attack, there is a very real possibility that the commander-in-chief knew what was going on well before the "three hour" mark.  That possibility raises very real questions about what Mr. Obama knew, when he knew it, and his initial response to the crisis.

As Congress digs deeper into the incident, they should ask the NSA Director (General Keith Alexander) about CRITIC reporting from Libya on the night in question.  The amount of CRITIC reporting by NSA is very small--usually no more than a handful of messages a year.  It won't be very hard to determine if any FLASH/CRITIC messages were sent to the White House that night; when the President received them, and exactly what he knew before his "command decision" to go back to bed.      


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