The New York Times has this morning's top talker as everyone in Washington looks ahead to Monday evening's foreign policy debate in Boca Raton, Fla.: A largely sympathetic look at the lag between what the Obama administration knew about last month's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and what it was saying publicly.
While the White House's shifting narrative surrounding the assault has been used by Mitt Romney to hit the president on foreign policy (a criticism that is sure to come up again during Monday's debate), intelligence officials who spoke to the Times contend that such a lag between private—and sometimes incomplete—intel and public statements is inevitable given what happens in the wake of such events.
The NYT report's lead anecdote focuses on how Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, originally described the Benghazi attack on the Sunday talk shows as resulting directly from a spontaneous riot that was prompted by an obscure anti-Islamic video. By the time she was sitting down with the network anchors for those interviews, the paper reports, U.S. intelligence officers had already begun to doubt the spontaneous riot story.
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say need to be vetted and assessed, into polished intelligence assessments can take days, long enough to make them outdated by the time senior American officials utter them.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.
Read the full story here, which also provides a rough chronology of the administration's shifting narrative.