Last week, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bipartisan report finding that the deadly assault on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and 3 other Americans, could have been prevented.
The account spreads blame among the State Department, the military and U.S. intelligence for missing what now seem like obvious warning signs in the weeks before the September 11, 2012, attack, including multiple clues and outright threats that appeared on social media — key evidentiary source of Electronically Stored Information (ESI) as defined by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
And therein lies what could be the real scandal of the Benghazi affair – The failure of the US Intelligence Committee to monitor and investigate available social media evidence leading up to the attack in that volatile and dangerous part of the world. The Senate report notes that “[a]lthough the Intelligence Community (IC) relied heavily on open source press reports in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the IC conducted little analysis of open source extremist-affiliated social media prior to and immediately after the attacks.” And that there were “reports from the IC indicating that more in-depth intelligence exploitation of social media in the Benghazi area, including web postings by Libyan nationals employed at the Temporary Mission Facility, could have flagged potential security threats to the Mission facility or important information about the employees prior to the September 11, 2012, attacks.”
One of the missed clues identified by the Senate report, which includes 14 independent references to social media evidence, involved a prior May 22, 2012, attack on the Benghazi-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) building by militants with Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). On May 28, 2012, a previously unknown organization, The Omar Abdurrahman Group, took to social media to claim responsibility for the ICRC attack and issued a direct threat against the United States. It is believed by many intelligence experts, and implied in the Senate report, that the Omar Abdurrahman group was responsible for the September 11, 2012, attacks on the American diplomatic compound.
The Senate report includes a key recommendation that the Intelligence Community “must place a greater emphasis on collecting intelligence and open-source information, including extremist-affiliated social media, to improve its ability to provide tactical warnings…” And separately, the Senate Intelligence Committee recommends that the “IC should expand its capabilities to conduct analysis of open source information including extremist-affiliated social media particularly in areas where it is hard to develop human intelligence or there has been recent political upheaval. Analysis of extremist-affiliated social media should be more clearly integrated into analytic products, when appropriate.”
Ironically, all these pieces of evidence and clues could have been very effectively gathered with specially designed investigation software that runs $945 a seat.
And speaking of written reports issued last week by prominent organizations that address the compelling trend of social media evidence, Gibson Dunn released their 2013 Year-End Electronic Discovery and Information Law Update. In a section dedicated to social media, the Gibson Dunn Update notes that “the number of cases involving social media evidence continues to skyrocket,” and that “Commentators and courts alike have noted that the use of social media evidence has become commonplace across all types of litigation.” The Update covers several cases, many of which have been addressed on this blog, involving key legal issues related to social media. It’s a good read, and is not unlike the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Benghazi report, in that both underscore the critical importance of social media evidence, for both reactive and proactive investigations of many stripes.