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‘Talking points’ generate plenty of talk

By Dale R. Herspring

Based on the apparent confusion concerning U.N. Am-bassador Susan Rice’s talking points during network news shows on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, it might be useful to provide some information about the process. I went through it on many occasions.

First, a clarification: Our intelligence agencies do not prepare talking points.  That is a reference to material for an official who is preparing to speak either in a classified or unclassified environment on a sensitive policy issue. 

When the question is what policy to adopt on a sensitive issue such as the attack in Benghazi, intelligence agencies (not just the CIA) provide an analysis of what happened to the best of their knowledge. This briefing also includes statements of how reliable the intelligence agency or agencies consider their judgements to be. They may say that they consider one judgement to be 60 percent reliable, another 90 percent reliable and yet another to be only 15 percent reliable. It is also possible — and this was common during the Cold War — that one intelligence office may “take a footnote,” noting that it disagrees with the findings and explaining why.

This raises an pertinent question: Is the intelligence data ever politicized?  Yes. When Colin Powell went to the CIA to work out the intelligence on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he and intelligence personnel constantly disagreed with members of the Bush administration. The latter were determined to prove that these weapons were there, while the intelligence types, questioning the weapon s’ presence, kept saying they were far from 100 percent certain the weapons existed. But policy types kept pushing and eventually convinced a reluctant Powell that they were right. It led to what became Powell’s biggest embarrassment when he testified before the U.N. Security Council. In short, the books were cooked on information that led to an unnecessary war.

Once the intelligence agencies have provided their briefings, they move out of the spotlight. Policymakers take over, although intelligence representatives continue to attend most meetings to answer questions as the process continues. Some-times, however, they are excluded, as happened in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The policy process depends on the individuals and the political sensitivity of the issues. Everyone proceeds from the same assumption: the goal is to come up with a policy that makes the administration, and especially the president, look good and can be approved

That does not mean that all of the agencies or departments involved will look at policy in the same way. There is presidential guidance on most issues. In the case of Libya, it appears to have been that we wanted the Libyans to see our embassy and consulate not as armed camps but as outposts extending the hand of friendship. A second and more important factor was the president’s often repeated assertion that “Al Qaeda is on the run.”  From a policy standpoint, there may be a clash between what the intelligence says (assuming it the intel has not already been politicized) and policy objectives. In my experience, the intelligence is usually not politicized; exceptions could involve cases in which there is a lot at stake, as was the case in the attack on Benghazi.

Two questions are of concern to Congress. First, what did former CIA Director David Petra-eus tell lawmakers? He claims that he said that from the beginning he considered the attack an act of terror by al Qaeda. Some who heard him say yes, some say no. Let us assume Petraeus is right or mostly right.

This raises the question of how Ambassador Rice ended up with talking points calling the attack on our consulate a result of a riot caused by an anti-Muslim movie. It will probably take another book by Bob Woodward to resolve this definitively. 

What I can say — assuming the material was changed — is that it was done either because someone believed this was the way the president wanted it or because the president told them this was how he wanted it to read.

In the end, the White House is always the key player: nothing of this sensitivity goes out without the approval of the NSC advisor

So what does this say about Ambassador Rice? I realize she was too tempting a target for Republicans to pass up to get at the president. Yet I agree with Sen. Dianne Fein-stein, who complained that Rice has been treated improperly. When a person in Rice’s status receives a cable from Washington telling her to go on TV and make the following points, it is not a suggestion. Nor does she play with the language unless she personally knows it is wrong. I remember times as a diplomat when I was given talking points to present whose accuracy I questioned. But policy was policy. This was what the White House wanted us to say, so we said it.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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