The scale of the threat to American national security and interests posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is dependent upon the administration official making the assessment. To hear it from Barack Obama or his Cabinet officials, ISIS is losing ground in the Middle East, and intelligence efforts are thwarting the group’s efforts to execute attacks abroad. American military and intelligence officials, however, warn that ISIS is expanding its efforts to export terrorism to the West to combat the impression that the group is on its heels. The motivation to assuage the public’s concerns about ISIS is entirely and obviously political. It is that motivation which makes the scandal involving the falsification of intelligence related to the rise of ISIS all the more disturbing.
In September of 2015, over 50 intelligence analysts working with Central Command issued a formal complaint alleging that intelligence relating to the activities of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria were being intentionally softened to present policy makers with a rosier picture of the threat in the region than was warranted. The complaints and the evidence presented to the Pentagon Inspector General’s office prompted a formal investigation into the allegations—an investigation which subsequently resulted in a congressional inquiry. The results of that inquiry are in, and they’re especially damning. On Thursday, a report released by the House Joint Task Force on U.S. Central Command Intelligence Analysis found that there were systematic efforts to distort intelligence relating to terror groups in Syria to “downplay” the nature of the threat.
According to the final House account, senior CENTCOM officials made “edits” and “word changes” to reports softening the extent of the ISIS threat. Those reports were read by Pentagon and defense intelligence leadership and used to brief officials like the Director of National Intelligence, who presented those findings to policy makers up to and including President Barack Obama.
The report noted that CENTCOM had regular secure calls with senior intelligence staff, often “several times per week,” and the information exchanged on those calls was presumably of poor quality. “The frequency of these interactions could have provided CENTCOM leaders with outsized influence on the material presented to the President outside of formal coordination channels,” the report alleged. “These frequent interactions are at odds with the DNI James Clapper’s testimony to Congress that ‘intelligence assessments from CENTCOM… come to the national level only through the Defense Intelligence Agency.’”
“[C]onsumers of those intelligence products were provided a consistently ‘rosy’ view of U.S. operational success against ISIS,” said task force member Representative Mike Pompeo. “That may well have resulted in putting American troops at risk as policymakers relied on this intelligence when formulating policy and allocating resources for the fight.”
The most damning allegation that this investigation appears to confirm the charge made in September of last year, which was that these intelligence reports were falsified with a clear aim: to make the president happy.
As The Daily Beast reported at the time, based on allegations from 11 sources familiar with the CENTCOM investigation, these intelligence estimates were “manipulated to fit a public narrative.” That precise language was repeated in this report. “Of the 71 comments, 32 included direct allegations of distortion of intelligence to fit a positive narrative, and an additional 26 comments raised broader tradecraft or process concerns,” the report concluded. Congressional investigators noted that all these edits downplayed the threat. None of them augmented the urgency of the hazards posed by that or other terrorist groups in the region.
As the Syrian civil war intensified and ISIS exploded across the Iraqi border in early 2014, the president and his appointed officials routinely dismissed the threat posed by ISIS and other Islamist organizations operating in Syria. The result of that public relations campaign was the generation of intelligence reports that confirmed the White House’s biases. The House investigation seems to confirm that suspicion, as well as to allege that members of the defense intelligence community, including DNI James Clapper, and CENTCOM officials actively mislead Congress.
This is a scandal of the first order. The instinct to tell the president what he wanted to hear made an avoidable catastrophe worse. American soldiers are at risk, and some have lost their lives fighting in a conflict that may have been averted if policy makers had an accurate understanding of the threat when it was containable. This is intelligence failure on par with anything that occurred during the Bush administration. So why isn’t the national political press treating it that way?