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Libya confusion typical of field reports

WASHINGTON — Even as Susan E. Rice took to Sunday talk shows last month to describe the Obama administration’s assessment of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, intelligence analysts suspected that the explanation was outdated.

Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has said that the judgments she offered on talk shows Sept. 16 came from talking points prepared by the CIA, which reckoned the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans had resulted from a mob angry about an anti-Islamic video. That assessment was based on intercepted communications, informants’ tips, and Libyan press reports, officials said.

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Later that Sunday, though, US intelligence analysts were already sifting through field reports that seemed to contradict that assessment. But it would be several days before the intelligence agencies changed their formal assessment based on the new reports, and informed administration officials about the change. Intelligence officials say such a lag is typical.

The gap between the talking points prepared for Rice and the contemporaneous field reports that seemed to paint a much different picture illustrates how the process of turning raw field data, which officials say need to be vetted and assessed, into polished assessments can take days.

Mitt Romney and congressional Republicans have sharply criticized Rice’s comments and the administration’s shifting public positions on the cause of the attack. Intelligence officials, alarmed that their work has turned into a political football, defend the approach, noting top administration officials receive daily briefings that reflect the consensus of the array of US intelligence agencies, but can also dip into the fast-moving stream of field reports, with the caveat that information is incomplete and may be wrong.

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