How Politics Distorts American Intelligence Assessments
Intelligence Assessments are supposed to be nonpolitical and solidly based on the facts. However, ever since the beginning of time, they have been written to meet the political needs of the leadership.
This has been a common problem for American intelligence, which has leaders that have to regularly report to the electorate and stand for election. If negative reports imply that a leader’s strategy isn’t working, it could impact him in the next election. This has been evident over the years in intelligence assessments ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The latest problem is with reports on the war against ISIS, which appear to have been tailored to make ISIS look weaker than they really were.
It now seems many intelligence analysts inside Central Command (CENTCOM) itself don’t believe CENTCOM’s estimates. A Department of Defense Inspector General’s investigation is rumored to be now underway to look into whether senior leaders have pressured analysts to change their estimates to provide a more positive picture of how much progress the U.S.-led air campaign is making.
According to these reports, analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency assigned to work at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa were pressured to alter their assessments to conform to the views of senior policymakers. This meant the Defense Department’s own analysts, who believe the campaign is not going well, were prevented from giving military leaders information they didn’t want to hear or that contradicted the overly optimistic public presentation of how well the fight is going.
The investigation was first disclosed by the New York Times. The paper reported that it began after at least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst told authorities that he had evidence that officials at US Central Command were improperly reworking conclusions of assessments prepared for policymakers, including Obama.
These assessments have been critical for creating a White House narrative that the war against ISIS was succeeding. On 15 May, for example, Brigadier General Thomas Weidley, who at the time was chief of staff to the military headquarters running the war, told reporters that the Islamic State was “losing and remains on the defensive.” Even as he spoke, Iraqi officials were saying that ISIS fighters had captured the main government compound in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. Two days later the city fell, marking a significant victory for ISIS and a setback for the US and Iraq.
According to the Daily Beast, “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.
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.”
This is not the first time in the War on Terror that political pressure has been placed on intelligence analysts. The Obama Administration was also anxious to declare the death of al Qaeda.
“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 Assessments versus Reality on the Ground
Admittedly, ISIS has lost territory since its peak expansion in August 2014, including the loss of 9 percent of its territory since January of this year. That ISIS appears to have lost ground in the face of American airstrikes has been taken by some commentators as a sign that the very limited air campaign is succeeding.
But matters are not so straightforward. It is also important to ask precisely what territory ISIS has lost and what those specific losses say about its relative strength.
Independent observers have been skeptical about CENTCOM’s estimates for some time. In August 2014, when the CIA said their high end estimate for ISIS’s strength was 31,500, sources close to Syrian opposition estimated ISIS actually had 50,000 men. Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashimi estimated ISIL had 100,000 fighters.
The actual number of ISIL fighters is probably closer to the higher figures of independent analysts than the CIA’s more optimistic numbers.
However, the strength of ISIS is also a function of how much territory it controls – i.e. the more ground it controls, the more men it must have under arms to secure the area. ISIS controls a territory with about 4 million inhabitants. A mere 30,000 fighters could not hold all this territory and launch the kind of offensives ISIS carries out. In reality, the actual ISIS force has to be closer to double or more than the CIA’s estimate of 30,000. The numbers could be even higher if you include the local militias allied with ISIS who help it maintain security in its core territories.
Analysts may disagree with the CIA as to how many fighters ISIS has but there doesn’t appear to be any disagreement that ISIS’s forces are about as numerous as they were a year ago. Probably the most accurate statement that can be made is that a year ago, ISIS had a well-organized, well-motivated force with enough troops to hold their territory and to launch offensives. That is still true today.
The failure of America’s ISIS strategy has forced some to rethink who should be supported in the region. Former CIA Director and retired four-star general David Petraeus appears to be suggesting that the US use al Qaeda to defeat the Islamic State.
Petraeus does have a reputation in U.S. circles defeating an enemy in the region. He was praised for tackling a bloody and seemingly unstoppable wave of “insurgent’s attacks” in Iraq in 2007. Essentially, that approach involved convincing some “Sunni Tribes” that Nouri al-Maliki’s government was not the enemy and encouraging them to fight against “radical Sunnis”.
It worked. The subsequent movement known as Sahwa or the Awakening became key to the US “surge” strategy. Sahwa militias were credited with reducing violence in the country which remained relatively calm until 2014.
Petraeus wants to replicate this strategy in Syria, the Daily Beast reported, citing four anonymous sources familiar with the situation. He has been “quietly urging” US officials to reach out to” moderate” terrorists in al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria, and press them to focus on countering the Islamic State.
The two groups engaged in the fight to topple the Syrian legitimate authorities, and establish an Islamic regime in the war-torn country. Both groups are currently at odds with each other.
However, the biggest problem may be at home, where allying itself with the same group responsible for 9-11 may be unpalatable for most Americans.
Although politically acceptable intelligence assessments have been around for centuries, they remain a major problem, especially if the leadership has a political agenda that differs with the analysis.
An excellent example of this is the German General Staff assessment of Russian forces prior to the invasion of Russia by Germany. Hitler was determined to invade his Communist neighbor and German intelligence tilted the reports to underestimate the strength and resilience of the Soviet army.
In this case, Obama has been insistent that his “limited air war” policy be seen as defeating ISIS. Rather than showing the weaknesses of this plan, intelligence analysts provided reports that falsely reported that ISIS was retreating. This gave Obama something to brag about in the run-up to the 2014 mid-term elections, but it left him with a greater problem that may have to be rectified by allying with al Qaeda – the proverbial case of fighting fire with fire.
This will not change in the next 18 months. The US is in the beginning of the 2016 presidential election and Obama can’t afford to change the narrative that the current policy is a successful one. The two most likely Democratic presidential nominees, Clinton and Biden, are inexorably tied to the Obama Middle Eastern policy and can’t afford for any questions of failure to pop up.
Although the Republican candidates will continue to harp on White House failures in the region, Obama will insist that he is winning – a position that he will buttress with favorable reports from his intelligence community.
In the end, the current investigation will grind to a halt as no one will be willing to reveal the political pressures brought onto CENTCOM – pressures that can lead back to the Oval Office. And the sad trend of political pressures influencing intelligence reports will continue.
Why Enlisting Turkey to Fight the Islamic State Was a Bad Idea
By Brad Stapleton
August 30, 2015
Earlier last week, Turkey announced that it is poised to launch “comprehensive” air operations, in cooperation with the United States, against Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Syria. That announcement is surely welcome news to the Obama administration, whose campaign to degrade and defeat ISIS is now in its second year. Yet this burden sharing entails costs as well as benefits. Since taking office, Obama has insisted that in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States’ allies will have to shoulder more of the burden in addressing new and ongoing international security challenges. In the campaign against IS, the administration has ruled out the deployment of U.S. ground troops. Instead, the U.S. military has been restricted to launching airstrikes against IS targets in support of local ground forces in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, the administration has pressured regional allies, Turkey in particular, to play a more active role in the conflict.
Beyond the Iran Deal
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
September 2, 2015
Senator Mikulski’s promise to support the Obama administration’s agreement on the Iranian nuclear program should move discussion away from partisan politics. The vote is done, or soon will be, and the agreement will stand. In its wake are a daunting set of tasks. One has to do with the implementation of the agreement itself, working through the verification requirements and the almost-certain disputes over what full compliance really means. Arms control is a slow and painstaking business, and this agreement will receive more than the usual scrutiny. A second set of issues concerns Iran’s regional activities, which the agreement does not address. Heightened expectations that the Iranians will boost their support for Middle Eastern allies who seek to upset the status quo will make everyone more sensitive to Iranian actions. Promoting more positive Iranian regional behavior will be difficult, and curbing Iranian malfeasance is no easier than it has been.
The President, King Salman, and the Gulf between Them
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
September 1, 2015
Meetings between allied heads of state rarely risk any form of confrontation. They usually are carefully prepared beforehand to produce some kind of positive result rather than used to actually negotiate, and almost inevitably end in some kind of public statement that puts as positive a spin as possible on the meeting. The meeting between President Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be an exception. Both nations are close strategic partners in spite of their differences, and both states need each other. At the same time, anyone who travels to the Gulf and meets with Gulf officials and military is aware that the United States needs to reassure its allies and reinforce its commitment to that partnership. At a more popular level, it is also all too clear that many in the Gulf do not trust the U.S. commitment to stay in the Gulf, and are bothered by conspiracy theories that the United States is somehow turning to Iran. Many also see the United States as a nation that is not an effective enough leader and has no clear strategy for the region.
Taking Out the Trash: Lebanon’s Garbage Politics
By Maha Yahya
August 25, 2015
Large protests are gripping Beirut’s streets once more, demanding an end to the garbage crisis that has overwhelmed the country in the past month. Called for by grassroots activists using the Twitter hashtag #YouStink, in reference to the country’s political elite, the protests are forming into an embryonic civic movement against the sectarian political system that has paralyzed the country for decades. The large and diverse crowds the protests have attracted highlight the extent and spread of popular discontentment in the country. Whether the activists succeed in pushing forward any sort of reform will depend on their next move.
A Normal Nuclear Pakistan
By Toby Dalton and Michael Krepon
August 27, 2015
Pakistan has worked hard and successfully to build diverse nuclear capabilities. It will retain these capabilities for the foreseeable future as a necessary deterrent against perceived existential threats from India. At this juncture, Pakistan’s military leadership in Rawalpindi can choose to accept success in achieving a “strategic” deterrent against India — a nuclear force posture sufficient to prevent limited nuclear exchanges and a major conventional war. Alternatively, it can choose to continue to compete with India in the pursuit of “full spectrum” deterrence, which would entail open-ended nuclear requirements against targets both near and far from Pakistan. These choices would lead Pakistan to two starkly different nuclear futures and places in the global nuclear order.
Europe Wavers as the Mediterranean Looks East
By Joshua W. Walker
German Marshall Fund
August 26, 2015
This summer, the Greek crisis, Turkey’s relaunched war on terror along with a number of terrorist attacks across North Africa, and the migration tragedy have once again focused global attention on the Mediterranean. Further east, China’s dramatic stock market volatility has reverberated across the globe as the interconnections between the Mediterranean to Asia have become more apparent. In the midst of this, the re-emergence of the ancient Silk Road in an increasingly stable Central Asia is affecting a Mediterranean region seeking stability. Previously a vital connection between the Chinese Empire and Europe, ports like Piraeus and Venice are trying to rejuvenate themselves by orienting toward Asia to maintain relevance in the global economy.
Saudi King Comes to Washington, with His Son
By Simon Henderson
September 2, 2015
On September 4, King Salman is scheduled to visit the White House for the first time since succeeding to the throne in January. His inaugural visit to Washington was originally supposed to occur during the May summit of Gulf leaders at Camp David, but he cancelled at the last moment in what was widely perceived as a snub to President Obama’s then pending nuclear agreement with Iran. The upcoming visit is expected to focus on repairing the diplomatic damage. At seventy-nine years old, the king has limited physical and mental capacity for diplomacy. He is flying in from Morocco, where he has spent the past month on vacation after curtailing a planned sojourn in southern France on a whim. His formal discussion with President Obama is expected to be short and tightly scripted — the more crucial character in the room will probably be his favorite son, the thirtyish Muhammad bin Salman (a.k.a. MbS), who serves as defense minister and deputy crown prince. The king’s notional heir apparent — fifty-six-year-old nephew Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (MbN) — will remain in the kingdom.
New IDF Strategy Goes Public
By Michael Herzog
August 28, 2015
On August 13, the Israel Defense Forces published a thirty-three-page document titled “IDF Strategy.” This is a shorter, unclassified version of a comprehensive document designed as the conceptual framework for the new IDF five-year plan, “Gideon,” which has yet to be approved by the government. This document, bearing the imprint of new chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, is unique in Israel’s history because it not only defines and bases itself on elements of a national security doctrine, but was also released to the public. Israel has not had a formal, written national security doctrine since the time of its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The last attempt at developing one in 2004-2007 (the Meridor Comission), was completed but not put to government approval; the “IDF Strategy” draws on that effort.