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As Obama's War in Iraq and Syria Rumbles On, Are Intel Books Getting Cooked?

Reports from inside the intelligence community indicate that what military assessments find and what the public is being told may be two very different things

President Obama delivered a speech on the nuclear deal with Iran at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C., on August 5, 2015. (Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA)

Calling to mind the subterfuge made infamous by the administration of George W. Bush in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, reports are emerging from within Obama's Pentagon and intelligence community that internal assessments of the ongoing war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria are being "cooked" or "politicized" to fit the public proclamations of the president, cabinet members, and military commanders.

"Jokes about the oxymoron of 'military intelligence' aside, bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge loathe to admit it."
—former U.S. diplomat Peter Van Buren

In Wednesday's edition, the New York Times cited unnamed "officials familiar with the inquiry" to report that the Pentagon's inspector general is conducting an investigation into allegations that military officials "skewed intelligence assessments" as a way to "provide a more optimistic account of progress" about the ongoing operations againt ISIS that began more than a year ago. The focus of the probe is to determine whether or not higher-ups altered the conclusions drawn by lower-level analysts before passing them up.

According to the Times:

The investigation began after at least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst told the authorities that he had evidence that officials at United States Central Command — the military headquarters overseeing the American bombing campaign and other efforts against the Islamic State — were improperly reworking the conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama, the government officials said.

Fuller details of the claims were not available, including when the assessments were said to have been altered and who at Central Command, or Centcom, the analyst said was responsible.

In direct contrast to public pronouncements by current and retired top brass at the White House and Pentagon, the officials who spoke to the Times said that the internal intelligence reviews in question "paint a sober picture about how little the Islamic State has been weakened over the past year." According to the Times, the officials said "the documents conclude that the yearlong campaign has done little to diminish the ranks of the Islamic State’s committed fighters, and that the group over the last year has expanded its reach into North Africa and Central Asia."

Though battlefield and strategic assessments often conjure disputes within the intelligence community, the opening of an IG investigation indicates these disagreements go beyond the "typical," the Times noted.

Buttressing the initial reporting by the Times, the Daily Beast also spoke with officials and and intelligence analysts familiar with the matter who further confirmed that even as assessments find the American-led campaign against ISIS isn’t going very well, "their bosses keep telling them to think again about those conclusions."

As journalists Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef report:


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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 a 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.

In response to these reports, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The Daily Beast he calls such behavior "the politicization of the intelligence community."

Remarking on that phrase, veteran journalist Spencer Ackerman took to Twitter and declared, "Never. Politicize. Intelligence. You fool yourself and other people die as a result."

And writing at his We Meant Well blog on Thursday, former U.S. diplomat Peter Van Buren, who served in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion ordered by President Bush, said the "cooking" of the intelligence books, no matter what the purpose or the politics, is never a good strategy. He writes:

While legitimate differences of opinion are common in intel reporting, to be of value those differences must be presented to policy makers, and played off one another in an intellectually vigorous check-and-balance fashion. There is a wide gap between that, and what it appears the Inspector General is now looking at.

Cooking the intel to match policy makers’ expectations has a sordid history in the annals of American warfare. Analysis during the Vietnam War pushed forward a steady but false narrative of victory. In the run-up to Iraq War 2.0, State Department analysis claiming Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction was buried in favor of obvious falsehoods.

Jokes about the oxymoron of “military intelligence” aside, bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge loathe to admit it.

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