Intelligence reports that questioned the efficacy of U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State fighters were reportedly questioned, watered-down, or distorted, in order to present a more "glass half full" view of the bombing campaign, new reporting reveals.
In an exclusive report published over the weekend, Daily Beast reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef exposed the actual analysis that military leaders with U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, are being accused of altering in order to paint a "rosier picture" of its ongoing military strategy in Iraq and Syria.
Quoting unnamed defense officials and sources familiar with the analysts' complaint, the Daily Beast said that analysts' reports that questioned whether U.S. airstrikes against ISIS were "damaging the group’s finances and its ability to launch attacks" were heavily scrutinized compared to those that provided a more favorable view of the strikes.
The revelations follow earlier reporting which made the existence of the analysts' complaints known, though the specific nature of the intelligence being altered was initially left vague.
According to Harris and Youssef:
Senior CENTCOM intelligence officials who reviewed the critical reports sent them back to the analysts and ordered them to write new versions that included more footnotes and details to support their assessments, according to two officials familiar with a complaint levied by more than 50 analysts about intelligence manipulation by CENTCOM higher-ups.
In some cases, analysts were also urged to state that killing particular ISIS leaders and key officials would diminish the group and lead to its collapse. Many analysts, however, didn’t believe that simply taking out top ISIS leaders would have an enduring effect on overall operations.
Analysts described feeling "bullied" into reaching favorable conclusions and said they were compelled to "self-censor some of their reports."
Last month, the Pentagon's inspector general launched an investigation to determine where among the chain of command at the Centcom intelligence directorate did these reports become distorted. Reportedly, some of the manipulated intelligence has made its way into materials briefed to President Obama and may have influenced subsequent military action.
According to Harris and Youssef, "Some of the analysts have also accused their bosses of changing the reports in order to appeal to what they perceived as the Obama administration’s official line that the anti-ISIS campaign was making progress and would eventually end with the group’s destruction."
The reporting continues:
The altering of intelligence led to reports that overstated the damage that U.S. strikes had on specific ISIS targets. For instance, strikes on oil refineries and equipment were said to have done more damage to the group’s financing of operations through illicit oil sales than the analysts believed. Also, strikes on military equipment were said to have set back the group’s ability to wage combat operations, when the analysts believed that wasn’t always the case.
The altered reports made ISIS seem financially weakened and less capable of launching attacks, the analysts allege.
"There was the reality on the ground but it was not as rosy as [the leadership] wanted it to be," a defense official familiar with the complaint told The Daily Beast. "The challenge was assessing whether the glass was half empty, not half full."
According to Pentagon statistics, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted 6,863 strikes thus far in its ongoing—and unauthorized—war against ISIS.
Last week, Centcom commander Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III came under fire when he testified to a Congressional panel about the reported progress being made in the campaign against the Islamic State. During the testimony, Austin was asked whether he had ever ordered changes to intelligence reports, to which he replied, "Absolutely not."