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Clinton Says Source of Libya Intelligence Was a Mystery

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified Thursday that she wasn’t aware of the source of information about Libya provided by her friend Sidney Blumenthal and that it didn’t matter. Republican lawmakers and former officials were shocked she had so little curiosity about information she shared with top members of her staff, and thought it relevant that Blumenthal was working with a partisan former intelligence official as well as a longtime friend of the Clinton family.

Representative Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Select Benghazi Committee, pressed Clinton to disclose exactly how much she knew about the credibility of the information that Blumenthal was sending to her personal e-mail account about the political and security situation on the ground in Libya in 2011 and 2012. E-mails released by the committee showed that Clinton sometimes solicited knowledge from Blumenthal. She often passed on his memos for review and feedback to top White House and State Department officials, including Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attack on Sept. 11, 2012.

Clinton said that as far as she knew at the time, Blumenthal was collecting information from a wide network of associates that included journalists and other types of people around Washington.

“I don’t know who wrote them," she said. "I don’t know where he got the information.” She “did learn later,” she said, that Blumenthal was talking to “former American intelligence officials.”

Blumenthal was not an official or unofficial advisor on Libya, she insisted, just a friend who passed on information, similar to people who buttonhole her at a cocktail party. “On occasion, I forwarded on what he sent me to make sure that it was in the mix,” she said.

But if there was nothing below board about the source of the information, Gowdy asked, why did Clinton remove Blumenthal’s name from the information before she passed it on to the White House? Clinton claimed that officials would be better able to evaluate the information on its own, without knowing where it was coming from.

Many experienced intelligence officials would disagree. Michael Hayden, who served as director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency under President George W. Bush and is an adviser to the Jeb Bush presidential campaign, told us, "In evaluating human intelligence, the source is everything."

Several of the e-mails Blumenthal sent contained analysis from a former CIA officer, Tyler Drumheller, who at the time had a consulting firm. At times those spot intelligence reports contained bad information, such as a rumor that the journalist Seymour Hersh was about to meet Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddaffi for an interview.

Drumheller was not an impartial observer. In 2006, he published a memoir about his time in the CIA that accused the Bush White House of politicizing intelligence before the Iraq War, a contention that remains disputed. After his book came out, many progressive groups celebrated Drumheller as a whistleblower. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters wrote about him 11 times in 2006 and 2007. 

Republican sources on the Benghazi committee told us they had intended to call Drumheller as a witness, but he died in August.

Blumenthal and Drumheller worked on the Libya memos with Cody Shearer, a longtime Clinton family friend and Democratic political operative. This was revealed in 2013, when a hacker posted a tranche of e-mails between Blumenthal and Clinton. Blumenthal, Drumheller and Shearer discussed their dealings with retired General David Grange, the chief executive officer of a company named Osprey, which we reported was seeking State Department contracts in Libya after the war.

Clinton said on Thursday that Blumenthal’s e-mails did not influence her policy decisions. But in some cases Clinton's private e-mails contradict this. For example, Politico reported on an e-mail from the State Department's chief of policy planning, Jake Sullivan, who wrote that Blumenthal's ideas were being incorporated in a speech Clinton was planning. 

Republicans on the committee have compared Blumenthal's access to Clinton to that of Ambassador Stevens. Representative Mike Pompeo asked if Stevens had Clinton's personal e-mail, cell phone, home address and fax machine number, which Blumenthal, he said, used to contact her. 

Clinton shot down an earlier assertion from Pompeo that Blumenthal was her primary Libya adviser, saying she received information on Libya from a number of channels including the U.S. intelligence community, the State Department and the military. 

Blumenthal’s e-mails to Clinton also came up Thursday in the context of the actual attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi. Blumenthal had passed on intelligence the night of the attack to Clinton asserting that it had followed a protest about a video mocking the Prophet Muhammad that had been aired on Egyptian television. Later bipartisan Congressional investigations revealed that to be false.

For the first time Thursday, Clinton acknowledged that she had told the Egyptian foreign minister the day after the attack that the video was not the culprit. “We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack -- not a protest,” she told the Egyptian official, according to contemporaneous notes released by the Benghazi committee Democrats. That contradicts what State Department officials were saying publicly at the time, including to the victims’ families.

Clinton wrote in her memoir that she often went back and forth over the role the video played in the attack. A talking-points memo released by the White House in 2014, however, showed that senior government officials were encouraged to publicly say the Benghazi attack stemmed from a protest over the film.

Clinton’s explanation for this and other discrepancies involving Benghazi has repeatedly been that it was a complicated situation and perceptions were constantly changing due to conflicting streams of information and the fog of war. Her claim today that she didn’t know the source of some of that information is troubling, but more so is her assertion that it didn’t matter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net