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David Ignatius: The ways of Washington on display

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: May 20, 2013

The hundred pages of Benghazi emails released last week tell us almost nothing about how four Americans came to die so tragically in that Libyan city. But they are a case study in why nothing works in Washington.

Rather than reading these messages for their substance on Benghazi (on which officials were still basically clueless three days after the attack), try perusing them as an illustration of how the bureaucracy responds to crisis — especially when officials know they will be under the media spotlight.

What you find is a 100-page novella of turf-battling and backside-covering. By the end, the original product is so shredded and pre-chewed that it has lost most of its meaning. All the relevant agencies have had their say, and there's little left for the public.

No wonder that CIA Director David Petraeus, who began the exercise when he met with House intelligence committee members for coffee on the morning of Sept. 14, was unhappy with the effort. He complained that “this is certainly not what … (the committee) was hoping to get for unclas. use” and growled: “Frankly. I'd just as soon not use this.”

But in a typical Petraeus happy-talk sign off, he ended his message: “Regardless, thx for the great work.” What he should have said was: “This has been sanitized to the point of incoherence. Start over.” With his attaboy, the document was sent out to the intelligence committee and thence to the world.

The Benghazi emails have all been unclassified of course, but they reveal one of the true secrets of American national security policy — which is its lumpy inefficacy. If I were the Russian or Chinese intelligence services trying to understand how America really works (or doesn't), I'd start here.

Take a stroll with me through these memorably inane pages. CIA officials take turns patting each other on the back with comments such as “Good question,” “Good point.” And tellingly, from the very beginning, CIA officers are looking over their shoulders for what the lawyers will say: “Make sure that nothing we are saying here is likely to impact any future legal prosecution.” This at a time when the agency's priority, surely, should have been understanding who did the attack, not their prospective legal rights.

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