Remember when Democrats screamed about politicized intelligence and the need for independence and transparency? Good times, good times. The Pentagon has ordered a review of CENTCOM for producing falsely optimistic estimates of ISIS and US actions to contain and degrade it, but intel analysts tell The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef that they’re looking in the wrong direction:
Senior military and intelligence officials have inappropriately pressured U.S. terrorism analysts to alter their assessments about the strength of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, three sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast. Analysts have been pushed to portray the group as weaker than the analysts believe it actually is, according to these sources, and to paint an overly rosy picture about how well the U.S.-led effort to defeat the group is going.
Reports that have been deemed too pessimistic about the efficacy of the American-led campaign, or that have questioned whether a U.S.-trained Iraqi military can ultimately defeat ISIS, have been sent back down through the chain of command or haven’t been shared with senior policymakers, several analysts alleged.
In other instances, authors of such reports said they understood that their conclusions should fall within a certain spectrum. As a result, they self-censored their own views, they said, because they felt pressure to not reach conclusions far outside what those above them apparently believed.
The pressure comes directly from CENTCOM commanders, these analysts say, but that’s not where it originates:
Two defense officials said that some felt the commander for intelligence at CENTCOM failed to keep political pressures from Washington from bearing on lower-level analysts at command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. That pressure, while described as subtle and not overt, is nevertheless clear, the analysts said: Assessments on ISIS should comport with “the leadership consensus,” that is, top policymakers’ view, that the U.S.-led campaign against the group is paying dividends.
It’s worth pointing out that this kind of politicization and conclusion-fishing is not new. Democrats accused the Bush administration of doing something similar with the intelligence on Iraq as well, pushing the country into war. Some of the intelligence analysis turned out to be wrong, certainly, and it was wrong in a way that bolstered administration policy. In this case, though, it allowed a global threat to metastasize from a local gang of radical Islamists into quasi-state, a process which unfolded before everyone’s eyes, and the policymakers still refused to accept that these were not just “the jayvees” any longer even after they took Mosul, Raqqa, and many other smaller towns and villages.
In the aftermath of 9/11 and the second invasion of Iraq, Congress and the Bush administration pledged to reform the US intelligence structure, based in part on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Instead of streamlining, Congress decided to add layers of bureaucracy on top of a structure where bureaucracy buffered real data from policymakers. Those kinds of layers make it very easy for policymakers to operate in ignorance, and for pressure to add up on lower levels where intelligence is gathered and analyzed. At least, that is what the past decade has demonstrated.
We have seen it in other areas of the war on terror, too. After the Osama bin Laden operation in May 2011, the White House line was that “al-Qaeda was on the run.” When AQ continued conducting terror operations, the Obama administration changed that to assert that they had all but isolated so-called “core al-Qaeda.” Intelligence found something else entirely, but they were told to stop looking for AQ, according to one former intel figure:
“Whether al Qaeda was destroyed or no longer a factor—we were told to cease and desist that kind of analysis” following the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey, a former senior intelligence official at DIA, told The Daily Beast.
“Al Qaeda core was declared all but dead by the Obama administration,” Harvey said. But based on material found in documents that U.S. forces retrieved from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, “the organization in our view was more diverse and stronger in many ways than it had ever been before, despite al Qaeda core being hit hard.”
Well, it’s easier to keep asserting a position when one closes their eyes and ears to evidence that might undermine it. That leaves the US in the position of losing several years of focus on the war on terror, and making it all the more difficult to combat it.