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50+ U.S. intelligence analysts accuse Pentagon of altering their reports to present distorted rosy view of war against ISIS

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of Centcom

Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef report for The Daily Beast, Sept 9, 2015, that more than 50 intelligence analysts of the U.S. military’s Central Command (Centcom) formally complained that their reports on ISIS/Islamic State and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being altered by senior officials to present the terrorist groups as weaker than the analysts had portrayed.

The analysts are paid to give their honest assessment, based on facts, and not to be influenced by national-level policy. Assigned to work at Centcom and the U.S. military’s command for the Middle East and Central Asia, they are officially employed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Ironically, the DIA was created to be immune from the pressures and biases of the officers leading the war, but the agency is supervised by officers at Centcom.

The analysts’ complaints prompted the Pentagon’s inspector general to open an investigation into the alleged manipulation of intelligence.

The fact that so many people complained suggests there are deep-rooted, systemic problems in how the U.S. military command, charged with the war against the Islamic State, assesses intelligence. One defense official called it a “cancer…within the senior level of the intelligence command.”

In July 2015, two senior analysts at Centcom signed a written complaint to the Defense Department inspector general alleging that the reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The reports were changed by Centcom higher-ups to adhere to the Obama administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the analysts claim.

In recent months, members of the Obama administration have sought to paint the fight against ISIS in rosy hues—despite the latter’s seizure of major cities like Mosul and Fallujah. As examples:

  • In March, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “I am confident that over time, we will beat, we will, indeed, degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” the Obama administration’s preferred acronym for the group.
  • Obama said in May, “No, I don’t think we’re losing.”
  • In July, John Allen, the retired Marine general charged with coordinating the ISIS campaign, outright declared, “ISIS is losing.”

The written complaint was supported by 50 other analysts, who are willing and able to back up the substance of the allegations with concrete examples. Some of the analysts had complained about politicizing of intelligence reports for months. That’s according to 11 individuals who are knowledgeable about the details of the report and who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.

The allegations echoed previous charges that political appointees and senior officials cherry-picked intelligence about Iraq’s supposed weapons program in 2002 and 2003.

Some of those CENTCOM analysts described the sizeable cadre of protesting analysts as a “revolt” by intelligence professionals. The analysts accused senior-level leaders, including the director of intelligence and his deputy in CENTCOM, of changing their analyses to be more in line with the Obama administration’s public contention that the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda is making progress. The analysts take a more pessimistic view about how military efforts to destroy the groups are going.

The complaints allege that in some cases key elements of intelligence reports were removed, resulting in a document that didn’t accurately capture the analysts’ conclusions. The complaints also accuse some senior leaders at CENTCOM of creating a “Stalinist” unprofessional work environment. Many described a climate in which analysts felt they could not give a candid assessment of the situation in Iraq and Syria. Some felt it was a product of commanders protecting their career advancement by putting the best spin on the war.

Reports by analysts which were too negative in their assessment of the war were sent back down the chain of the command or not shared up the chain. Others, aware of “the climate around them,” censored themselves so that their reports affirmed already-held beliefs.

Two of the officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said that analysts began airing their complaints last October in an effort to address the issue internally and only went to the inspector general when that effort failed. Some of those who complained were urged to retire; some agreed to leave.

Yet a growing group of intelligence analysts persisted with their complaints. For some, who have served at CENTCOM for more than a decade, scars remained from the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq, when poorly written intelligence reports suggesting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, when it did not, formed the basis of the George W. Bush administration’s case for war.

According to a report by the New York Times on Sept. 15, 2015, it is highly unusual that an investigation would be opened about the intelligence conclusions in an ongoing war.

The Pentagon’s inspector general is focusing on senior intelligence officials who supervise dozens of military and civilian analysts at Centcom, which oversees American military operations against ISIS. Bridget Serchak, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s inspector general, said in an email, “The investigation will address whether there was any falsification, distortion, delay, suppression or improper modification of intelligence information,” as well as examine any “personal accountability for any misconduct or failure to follow established processes.”

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