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May 15th, 2013
07:48 PM ET

Analysis: CIA role in Benghazi underreported

To really understand the push-pull over the bungled talking points in the wake of the Benghazi attack, you have to understand the nature of the U.S. presence in that city.

Officially, the U.S. presence was a diplomatic compound under the State Department's purview.

"The diplomatic facility in Benghazi would be closed until further notice," then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland announced last October.

But in practice - and this is what so few people have focused on - the larger U.S. presence was in a secret outpost operated by the CIA.

About 30 people were evacuated from Benghazi the morning after the deadly attack last September 11; more than 20 of them were CIA employees.

Clearly the larger mission in Benghazi was covert.

The CIA had two objectives in Libya: countering the terrorist threat that emerged as extremists poured into the unstable country, and helping to secure the flood of weapons after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi that could have easily been funneled to terrorists.

The State Department was the public face of the weapons collection program.

"One of the reasons that we and other government agencies were present in Benghazi is exactly that. We had a concerted effort to try to track down and find and recover as many MANPADS [man-portable air defense systems], and other very dangerous weapons as possible," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress in January.

The CIA's role during and after the attacks at the diplomatic post and the CIA annex in Benghazi have so far escaped much scrutiny.

The focus has been on the failure of the State Department to heed growing signs of the militant threat in the city and ensure adequate security, and on the political debate over why the White House seemed to downplay what was a terrorist attack in the weeks before the presidential election.

But the public needs to know more about the agency's role, said Republican congressman Frank Wolf, of Virginia.

"There are questions that must be asked of the CIA and this must be done in a public way," said Wolf.

Sources at the State Department say this context explains why there was so much debate over those talking points. Essentially, they say, the State Department felt it was being blamed for bungling what it saw as largely a CIA operation in Benghazi.

Current and former U.S. government officials tell CNN that then-CIA director David Petraeus and others in the CIA initially assessed the attack to have been related to protests against an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States.

They say Petraeus may have been reluctant to conclude it was a planned attack because that would have been acknowledging an intelligence failure.

Internally at the CIA, sources tell CNN there was a big debate after the attacks to acknowledge that the two former Navy SEALs killed – Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty – were CIA employees. At a 2010 attack in Khost, Afghanistan, when seven CIA officers were killed in the line of duty, the agency stepped forward and acknowledged their service and sacrifice. But in this instance - for reasons many in the Obama administration did not fully understand - it took the CIA awhile to "roll back their covers." Petraeus did not attend their funerals.

Wolf said  he and his office are getting calls from CIA officials who want to talk and want to share more.

"If you're 50 years old and have two kids in college, you're not going to give your career up by coming in, so you also need subpoena power," said the Republican congressman. "Let people come forward, subpoena them to give them the protection so they can't be fired."

But is the secrecy surrounding the CIA's presence in Benghazi the reason for the administration's fumble after fumble when trying to explain what happened the night of the attack?

There were 12 versions of talking points before a watered down product was agreed upon– suggesting an inter-government squabble over words that would ultimately lay the blame on one agency, or the other.

Perhaps the State Department did not want to get in the line of fire for a CIA operation that they in many ways were just the front for, the CIA "wearing their jacket," as one current government official put it.

The CIA did have an informal arrangement to help the mission if needed, but it was not the primary security for the mission. The State Department had hired local guards for protection.

People at the CIA annex did respond to calls for help the night of the attack. But despite being only a mile away, it took the team 20 to 30 minutes to get there. Gathering the appropriate arms and other resources was necessary.

None of this diminishes questions about how the White House, just weeks before the presidential election, seemed to downplay that this was a terrorist attack. Or the State Department's initial refusal to acknowledge that it had not provided adequate security for its own officials there.

But the role of the CIA, its clear intelligence failure before the attack, and - as it continued to push the theory of the anti-Muslim video - after the attack, bears more scrutiny as well.

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