Well, well … where have we heard this before? From the Daily Beast:
“More than 50 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command have formally complained that their reports on ISIS and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials, The Daily Beast has learned.
“The complaints spurred 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 self-proclaimed Islamic State assesses intelligence.
“‘The cancer was within the senior level of the intelligence command,’ one defense official said.
“Two senior analysts at CENTCOM signed a written complaint sent to the Defense Department inspector general in July 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 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.
“That complaint was supported by 50 other analysts, some of whom have 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 accusations suggest that a large number of people tracking the inner workings of the terror groups think that their reports are being manipulated to fit a public narrative.”
Yes, indeed; where have we heard about this before? Oh, look, there’s another sentence in that last paragraph:
“The allegations echoed charges that political appointees and senior officials cherry-picked intelligence about Iraq’s supposed weapons program in 2002 and 2003.”
Let’s start with the obvious: Manipulating intelligence reports to fit a politically motivated narrative is a terrible thing to do. It’s also a difficult thing to prove, although the details of this story — more than 50 analysts corroborating an official complaint to an inspector-general — suggest this is a substantial accusation. Do these analyses which are being altered or ignored represent the mainstream or a minority opinion? Which analyses — the ones that show a weaker ISIS and al-Qaida, or the ones that believe it to be stronger than we’ve been led to believe — are corroborated by the estimates of other nations’ intelligence agencies? How do they compare with the facts on the ground?
But let’s also acknowledge some key differences between the situation pre-Iraq war and present day. The Bush administration was acting on intelligence that was necessarily precarious because the entire premise was that Saddam Hussein wasn’t allowing full access to international inspectors. Enforcing that inspection mandate was, after all, part of the U.N. resolution passed in November 2002 that preceded the invasion begun in March 2003. The belief that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction predated the Bush administration and was also the basis for President Clinton’s bombing campaign against Iraq in 1998.
The situation today is rather different. For starters, the war with ISIS is already underway, even if we don’t exactly describe it as such. President Obama has already sent more than 3,000 U.S. troops back to Iraq to aid that country’s army in the fight and ordered thousands of air strikes against ISIS over the past year. We have people on the ground in the theater and eyes overhead monitoring actions going on above ground, not underground. There are actual, known facts which contradict the sunny official line about how things are going: ISIS is gaining ground, the conflict in Syria and humanitarian catastrophe there are worsening, and the U.S. continues to increase our presence in Iraq. These are telltale signs our side isn’t winning.
So one question is how the “Bush lied, people died” crowd is going to reconcile itself to a similar action within the Obama administration. We have already seen the anti-war protesters who roared during the Bush years go conspicuously silent about the thousands killed under orders by drone-happy Obama. (To adapt a line by Glenn Reynolds about civil liberties, if you really care about abuse of American military might, you should want a Republican president because the scrutiny will be greater.) Will they now remain silent about reports of intelligence manipulation to fit a narrative that’s leading to a slow-drip rebuilding of our presence in Iraq?
But more importantly, what is our strategy toward ISIS (do we yet have one?) and to what extent are our actions being determined by faulty intelligence? Are we allowing a threat to metastasize because we’re talking ourselves into thinking it’s no big deal? Are our troops who are already present in Iraq in greater danger than need be because we’re underestimating the enemy they face?
The follow-up — and reaction — to this one bear watching.