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August 04, 2013 10:15 AM Some Context for CNN’s Shocking Report on Benghazi

CNN thinks the CIA might have been smuggling out of Libya, hence Benghazi.

By Max Ehrenfreund

CNN’s Drew Griffin reported earlier this week that the Central Intelligence Agency might have been running guns from Libya to Syria out of its station in Benghazi, and that might be why the administration has gone to great lengths to cover up what happened there the night Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed. Or something like that?

The entire report reduces to this single finding:

Since January, some CIA operatives involved in the agency’s missions in Libya, have been subjected to frequent, even monthly polygraph examinations, according to a source with deep inside knowledge of the agency’s workings.
The goal of the questioning, according to sources, is to find out if anyone is talking to the media or Congress.
It is being described as pure intimidation, with the threat that any unauthorized CIA employee who leaks information could face the end of his or her career. …
“Agency employees typically are polygraphed every three to four years. Never more than that,” said former CIA operative and CNN analyst Robert Baer.

(Journalism school seminar: The only named sources in this report are Baer, who is apparently on CNN’s payroll, and Frank Wolf, a Republican congressman from Virginia. Neither are likely to be unbiased. Additionally, beginning one sentence with “Among the many secrets still yet to be told about the Benghazi mission” was unjustified and weakens the reader’s confidence in Griffin’s objectivity.)

The frequency of the polygraphs perhaps suggests that something was happening at the compound that the CIA and the administration doesn’t want anyone else to know about.

That is Conor Friedersdorf’s question:

If CNN’s report is correct, the CIA is at minimum trying to hide something huge from Congress, something that CIA agents might otherwise want to reveal — itself a reason for Congress to press hard for information. And if speculation about moving weapons is grounded in anything substantive, that would be an additional reason to investigate what the CIA is doing in Libya. Dozens of CIA agents were apparently on the ground in Benghazi, Libya last September. What I want to know is why.

I am not persuaded that there was anything happening at the Benghazi annex significantly different from, well, whatever it is the CIA is doing in any of the place around the world where its personnel are stationed.

A much simpler explanation for the frequency of the polygraphs is that this administration is panicky. They have gone to absurd lengths to keep personnel from talking. As McClatchy reported, the administration’s “Insider Threat” program, launched in response to Pfc. Bradley Manning’s leaks, requires all federal employees, not just those working with sensitive information, to keep a careful eye on one another. Personnel are encouraged to report not just unauthorized disclosures, but any signs of psychological stress, including divorce, debt, or frustrations with colleagues. The logic is that these conditions can be what pushes a person like Manning to take information outside of an agency.

I’ve argued elsewhere that this program might the most disturbing of all the administration’s secret programs to be revealed in the past few months, because it shows how far intelligence agencies would go in examining the details of our personal lives if they had the authority.

The administration’s attitude results in other behavior that would be comical if it weren’t so disturbing, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s grave warning to employees not to read an article published by my employer that included information that was still classified.

I think Friedersdorf gives the CIA too much credit. He assumes that the frequency of the polygraphs must have a rational motivation. What we’ve seen with this administration is that secrecy engenders a kind of institutional pathology, in which chiefs of agencies feel compelled to keep everything under wraps. The cause, I believe, is essentially political at a variety of levels. I would speculate that the Department of Education is involved in the Insider Threat program mainly because the administration thinks that if employees start chatting to the press, Republicans in Congress might find some reason to withhold the department’s funding. The same is probably true inside the surveillance apparatus. Secrecy is how the National Security Agency was able to convert Total Information Awareness, the Bush administration program rejected by Congress, into PRISM.

The Obama administration seems to have inherited from the Obama campaign the same obsession with avoiding political controversy and carefully controlling the information that the public receives. That is my conclusion, anyway, after reading this report by Politico’s Dylan Byers. The frequent polygraphs CNN report are nothing out of the ordinary, not for a president whose staff has an unreasonable attachment to secrecy for its own sake.

(By the way, if anyone knows of any confirmed instances of Syrian rebels using surface-to-air missiles or other weapons that might have come from Libya, I haven’t ruled out CNN’s theory entirely.)

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund

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