Army Gen. Joseph Votel is expected to take over as the head of U.S. Central Command later this month, and he’ll be leading the military campaign against ISIS at a troubled time for his own organization.
In interviews, half a dozen current and former officials have described the environment at CENTCOM headquarters as “toxic” and “hostile” owing to a long-simmering dispute over whether political influence was brought to bear on intelligence analysts whose job is to objectively assess the strength of ISIS and the effects of the U.S.-led efforts to destroy the group.
The subjects of the analysts’ frustration are the head of intelligence for CENTCOM, Maj. Gen. Steven Grove, and Gregory Ryckman, his civilian deputy. Some analysts have complained that they felt “bullied” into reaching conclusions favored by their bosses that weren’t supported by facts, two individuals familiar with analysts’ complaints told The Daily Beast. They say the written and verbal pressure created a climate at CENTCOM in which analysts felt they had to self-censor some of their reports.
Ryckman, in turn, has complained that the protesting analysts have created a “hostile work environment,” according to three individuals who are knowledgeable about working conditions at CENTCOM and asked not to be identified. U.S. officials said that Ryckman had not lodged any formal complaints with the Defense Department. But his perceived grievances with analysts have become a topic of conversation at the command.
The result: Analysts are suspicious of their bosses, and bosses are suspicious of the analysts. It will fall to Votel to help repair those divides.
Those who know and have worked with Grove and Ryckman describe them both as “intense” and demanding of their analysts, which, many hastened to add, was not always a liability. Ryckman in particular is an imposing figure; he is well over 6 feet tall.
One former senior U.S. official who knows both men said he had no reason to expect that they would allow political influence to color CENTCOM’s analysis, but added that such allegations had to be taken seriously, particularly because so many analysts have attached themselves to a complaint that was filed with the Pentagon’s inspector general.
That investigation continues, as does a separate inquiry by a congressional task force composed of staff from three House committees—intelligence, armed services, and defense appropriations.
The investigations are intended to independently determine whether intelligence reports were manipulated to make it appear that the U.S. war is going better than some analysts think it is. But when analysts are interviewed by congressional staff, a CENTCOM representative is always in the room, several sources told The Daily Beast, raising questions about whether the analysts feel free to speak their minds and criticize their superiors.
“Any CENTCOM personnel present during congressional inquiries includes appropriate subject matter experts,” Col. Patrick Ryder, the command’s spokesman, told The Daily Beast. He added that the current head of CENTCOM, Gen. Lloyd Austin, had given instructions for “leaders and staff to fully comply with requests for information from the [Defense Department inspector general] and Congressional Task Force and has encouraged personnel to speak freely with investigators and congressional staffers.”
But the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, has complained that CENTCOM officials are impeding the investigation. Whom the military called “experts” Nunes called “minders.”
“They’re having a tough time talking to us,” Nunes told The Daily Beast about analysts whom congressional staff have interviewed at the military command.
Nunes said that congressional staff also are aware of analysts’ allegations that senior officials attempted to delete emails and files that would show they more heavily edited reports that took a dimmer view of U.S. efforts to combat ISIS. But, Nunes said, Congress hasn’t been able to get access to records to confirm those allegations.
At CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida, uncertainty hovers over the day-to-day work of the command’s intelligence group. Investigators from Capitol Hill and the Pentagon’s watchdog have pulled analysts away from work to ask them questions. Their colleagues try to glean insights about the course of the investigation by keeping note of who is being queried and for how long.
For the analysts who have formally complained about potentially improper behavior by their leaders, the climate has become anxious. “The whistleblowers are scared all the time,” one official told The Daily Beast.
There were hopes that the Pentagon inspector general’s report could be completed as early as this month. It will outline what the watchdog concluded and could become the basis for the removal of commanders tasked with managing CENTCOM’s 1,000-plus analysts.
Some fear the report, rather than shed light on problems, will be an attempt to minimize the concerns expressed by some 50 analysts who attached themselves to the initial complaint to the inspector general.
“I think these people are frustrated at CENTCOM. I think there is a sense that a lot of this stuff is so well manipulated, nothing will change,” the official said.
Such frustrations come at what many believe is a critical juncture of the war. Commanders in Baghdad are crafting plans for a possible battle to retake Mosul, ISIS’s Iraqi capital. At the same time, many within the military believe that the incoming CENTCOM commander, Votel, will be more aggressive against the terror group than his predecessor, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin.
Last week, both the outgoing and incoming CENTCOM commanders began to make the public case to do more militarily against ISIS. Votel testified before Congress that pushing ISIS out of Mosul and Raqqa, its most important stronghold in Syria, “will take additional resources.”
“I do have concerns about our broader strategy against ISIS, about how we’re applying resources, about how we’re focusing our authorities, about how we’re leveraging all the required instruments of government and of our own and of our partners,” Votel said.
Austin concurred that changes were in store for the U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS.
“Clearly there are things that we will want to do to increase the capability a bit, to be able to increase the pace of operations, and that will require some additional capability,” Austin said.
But if CENTCOM’s new commander indeed wants to do more, current and former officials said, he will need a team of analysts not distracted by feuds and fears of reprisal.