Cook the Books

08.27.15 12:00 AM ET

Spies: Obama’s Brass Pressured Us to Downplay ISIS Threat

U.S. intelligence analysts keep saying that the American-led campaign against ISIS isn’t going so well. Their bosses keep telling them to think again about those conclusions.

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 phrase I use is the politicization of the intelligence community,” retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The Daily Beast when describing what he sees as a concerted push in government over the past several months to find information that tells a preferred story about efforts to defeat ISIS and other extremist groups, including al Qaeda. “That’s here. And it’s dangerous,” Flynn said.

At U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, analysts have been frustrated for months that as their reports make their way up the chain, senior officers change them to adhere more closely to the administration’s line. Three U.S. officials and analysts spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.

The analysts said it was unclear who was leading the pressure to adjust their assessments, which more than one referred to as “spinning.” Some called it a result of a climate of the culture their commanders create. How such reports travel from CENTCOM headquarters to the senior reaches of the government and the military, and who reads them along the way, varies. Some reports go directly to the White House. More often, they go through several internal organizations and checks to determine what information is most useful to top officials.

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.

A process has developed, these individuals said, by which officials from the Defense Intelligence Agency, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, are trying to achieve something close to consensus among the several intelligence agencies that weigh in on the threat of ISIS and the U.S. efforts against it.

The CENTCOM analysts say they’ve concluded that the campaign isn’t going well, but that the senior officials want all reports on ISIS to see “eye to eye” and to avoid analyses that reach widely different conclusions.

“I think it comes from the seniors that interact with the policy folks [meaning senior administration officials] and it filters its way down,” one of the analysts said.

In the past, the CENTCOM intelligence commander buffered the analysts from outside pressure but in the last two years that protection has been less reliable, the official said.

“You get this pressure. It’s a very subtle approach but it is effective,” he said.

CENTCOM declined to comment about the specific charge of pressure put on analysts. Similar concerns have reportedly been raised within the Defense Intelligence Agency, which provides analysis both for military commanders and civilian leaders.

The Defense Department’s inspector general is investigating allegations that military officials “have skewed intelligence assessments” about the anti-ISIS campaign, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. A complaint was lodged with the inspector general by at least one civilian analyst at the agency, who claimed that CENTCOM officials were “reworking the conclusions of intelligence assessments” prepared for senior leaders, including President Obama, the Times reported.

“I’m not surprised by this investigation,” Flynn said. He noted that senior military and Obama administration officials have been too optimistic in their public assessments about how the war against ISIS is faring.

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While Flynn noted that he had no particular information about the current inspector general investigation—which multiple sources confirmed is active—he said that only very senior officials would have the power to change intelligence assessments or lead them to be altered from their original form.

DIA analysis on extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa has “typically been more hard hitting” and has not tried to paint a preferred picture about how the fight is going against ISIS and al Qaeda, Flynn said.

“It’s not trying to sugar-coat and give you a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘probably,’” Flynn said. “It’s, ‘Here’s what we believe.’”

Current analysts said that there’s a tendency in some reporting to leave a sort of escape clause, that while the current efforts to defeat ISIS are going well, they could be set back at any moment. That kind of hedging appears designed to protect senior officials from subsequent accusations that they underestimated ISIS’s strength, while at the same time allowing them to say that the group is on the ropes.

Separate from analysts’ complaints, there have been signs within the military and the Pentagon that different groups of analysts were reaching different conclusions. In public statements and testimony, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been notably less optimistic about developments in the war against ISIS than senior members of the Obama administration have been.

The process of coordinating intelligence assessments is supposed to take into account the different views of the more than a dozen individual agencies that might weigh in on a particular topic. In the wake of a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program—when it didn’t—and that formed the basis for the U.S. invasion, the intelligence agencies are supposed to emphasize competing views, particularly when one or a few agencies reach a conclusion that is at odds with the prevailing view.

The intelligence community “routinely produces a wide range of subjective assessments related to the current security environment,” CENTCOM spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder told The Daily Beast, in response to questions about the inspector general report. “Prior to publication, it is customary for the IC [intelligence community] to coordinate these intelligence assessments. More specifically, members of the IC are typically provided an opportunity to comment on draft assessments.”

But it’s ultimately up to the “primary agency” that wrote the initial report as to whether it will “incorporate recommended changes or additions,” Ryder said. “Further, the multi-source nature of our assessment process purposely guards against any single report or opinion unduly influencing leaders and decision-makers.”

How precisely one report could influence a senior leader, of course, is a highly subjective matter. Top leaders consider different assessments during planning and decision-making, along with insights “provided by subordinate commanders and other key advisers,” Ryder said.

This isn’t the first time analysts have alleged that their terrorism reporting was skewed for political purposes.

“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.”

In the years following the raid, it became clearer that al Qaeda maintained the ambition and the capacity to threaten attacks inside the United States. Intelligence officials now say that al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and a group of fighters dispatched to Syria last year have sought to smuggle explosive devices that can’t be detected by airline security systems onto commercial passenger jets.

with additional reporting by Michael Weiss