The struggle for me this month is deciding what Intelligence Community (IC) centric topic is worthy of your time.  I could regal you with what I heard from the IC leadership at the DoDIIS Worldwide Conference in San Antonio (24-26 August) and the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence Summit in Washington D.C. (9-10 September).  Perhaps more compelling is the unfolding refugee/migrant crisis in central Europe and its impacts on national security and implications for the IC. Of course, the immediate budget uncertainties and potential government shutdown are never far from mind.  What is currently interesting me is how the past three years of declining Defense and IC budgets and projections of continuing cuts in the out years is impacting the federal Information Technology (IT) Services industry resulting in large corporations exiting the space and generating pressure for mergers and acquisitions that will change the way the IC acquires IT in the near future.

None of this matters though as an 800 pound gorilla has barged into the IC’s living room during the second week of September in the form of Inspector General (IG) complaints by two Central Command (CentCom) analysts that the command J2 (Army one star general officer) has been altering intelligence regarding ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria in order to support Obama Administration claims that these forces are being defeated on the battlefield.  Manipulating intelligence so it reflects either what seniors want to hear or supports a particular policy agenda is the most egregious breach of ethics that an intelligence professional can commit, so examining what is going on in Tampa and its broader implications for the IC is not anything I relish thinking about let alone discussing in a public forum.

To be clear, my knowledge about the events reported by Shane Harris is limited to what has been reported in the media and discussed publicly about them by IC Seniors at the AFCEA/INSA IC Summit.

According to Shane Harris’ reporting (  ), two senior intelligence analysts at CENTCOM submitted a written complaint via formal channels to the Defense Department (DoD) Inspector General (IG) in July alleging that reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The two analysts contend these 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. Fifty other CentCom intelligence analysts are reported to be supporting this formal complaint to the DoD IG and one person assigned to the CENTCOM J2 describes the command environment as “Stalinist.”

In related media reporting The Guardian’s U.S. correspondent Spencer Ackerman is implying that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper through regular secure video-teleconference calls with the CentCom J2 to better prepare himself for briefing the President may have inadvertently and subliminally caused the CentCom J2 to modify what his intelligence analysts were concluding from the information available to them. It is important to recognize that no one is making any claim let alone offering any evidence that the DNI was pressuring the CentCom J2 to modify his organization’s intelligence assessments.

The most important official response to these reports is from DIA Director Marine Corps LtGen Vince Stewart, USMC.  When asked about these allegations while on stage at the AFCEA/INSA Intelligence Summit with the heads of the “Big 6” Intelligence Agencies on 10 September, the Director of DIA acknowledged that there is an ongoing investigation so he could not speak to specifics, but he continued that he did want to talk to the dynamics involved with collecting and sorting out what intelligence means.  LtGen Steward reminded the audience that

“we [intelligence professionals] pride ourselves on analytic rigor, in which we look at the vast amount of information to deliver an assessment. It is not plain. It is not science. It is as much experience and judgment as anything else. So when we go through the analytic process, it is a pretty rough-and-tumble debate.”  Because experts can and often do disagree about what information is relevant or what the information collected means “. . .at some point at the end of the day someone has to say, ‘This is the best judgment of what the data says’ and present that to our decision makers.” 

The DIA Director went on to say that those with concerns about the creditability of battlefield related intelligence should “be applauded” for bringing these concerns to the IG via proper channels

It is certainly difficult to disagree with anything LtGen Stewart said, and I commend him for providing important context for understanding this controversy.  I also agree that the DoD IG investigation will sort out what if any wrong doing occurred with regard CentCom J2’s intelligence reporting on ISIS, et al. Nonetheless, from what is already in the public domain I can foresee at least five implications for the IC emerging from this situation no matter what the IG determines.

  1. These allegations will embolden those who content that IC cannot be trusted to keep national security decision makers informed with accurate, objective, and balanced intelligence
  2. Intelligence analysis at CentCom will certainly be disrupted and this disruption will ripple to other intel shops looking at ISIS and Al Qaeda
  3. IC leadership attention will be diverted away from the overall threat matrix as well as from managing the community during the current period of budgetary uncertainty
  4. There will be Congressional oversight hearings regarding “command influence” by IC seniors and others in the government on the substance and tone intelligence analysis writ large
  5. Opponents of the Iran Nuclear Agreement will argue a lack of confidence in the IC to report Iranian cheating if it is detected

There is also the issue of how those at CentCom lodging complaints of intelligence manipulation with the IG will be treated.  If they are punished in some way or their allegations are not thoroughly investigated and the results broadly reported, there will be a chorus of “see Snowden was right!”

I learned over 40 years ago from Admiral Inman that in Washington “if you are explaining, you are losing” and it looks like at least the CentCom J2 and probably the DNI on behalf of the entire IC will be explaining why and how the intelligence analysis provided to decision makers from the front lines to the Oval Office is produced with professional rigor to be as accurate and objective as possible.

That’s what I think; what do you think?


President Obama announced today (July 14th) that the P5+1 Group (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany along with the European Union) concluded a long-term comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran that will “verifiably” prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be for peaceful uses for at least the next 10 years in exchange for economic sanctions relief. Given all the dueling rhetoric in the media from politicians, foreign leaders, and cable news pundits, I don’t know if this deal is a good one or not.   What I will say, though, is my calculus for judging the merits of this agreement is whether the sanctions relief are enough to cause Iran to stop spinning its centrifuges in order to suspend its development of nuclear weapons.  So, rather than dive into the political pool of polemics about whether or not this agreement puts U.S. national security at risk, what I would prefer to explore with you is the impact I see this agreement with Iran having on the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

Most obvious is the stress the agreement puts on the IC that it can detect (and if need be verify) with national technical means whether Iran is cheating.  Or stated differently, that the IC has the ability independent from international inspectors to warn policy makers authoritatively and in a timely manner of Iranian non-compliance.  The President and Secretary of State clearly have confidence that the IC can effectively monitor any steps Iran takes to covertly continue its nuclear weapons program.  Skeptics, though, will immediately point to the 2002 Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on Iraq’s nuclear weapons capabilities as proof that such confidence in the IC is not deserved.  The strategic concern is that Iran will cheat and we won’t know it until it is too late.  The burden is clearly on the IC to at least neutralize, if not convince, naysayers that it has the technical capabilities and analytical skills to effectively monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.  In this regard the IC has its track record of verifying arms agreements with the Soviet Union/Russia to fall back on.

As the plot line is being written for the Congressional hearings on the nuclear accord with Iran, the IC in the person of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Jim Clapper will be cast in a no-win position by both supporters and opponents of this agreement.  The IC will certainly be expected by all sides in both open and closed hearings to document the Islamic Republic of Iran’s anti-American policies dating back to 1979, its number one ranking as the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, its current role in disrupting Iraq, its willingness to trade oil for arms with North Korea, its animosity towards Saudi Arabia and Israel as well as the covertness of its nuclear activities over the last decade.  The IC should also be expected to give an accounting of its capabilities to monitor Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement negotiated in Vienna.  Here opponents of the accord, which will include Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Chairman Richard Burr and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Chairman Devin Nunes, will be interested in having the DNI explain the inherent limitations of intelligence so as to cast doubts on the IC’s abilities to inform policy makers in a timely manner whether Iran is cheating or not.

If the DNI expresses “high confidence” that the IC will be able to discern Iranian compliance as well as non-compliance, he will be quickly reminded of  Director Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet’s [in]famous “slam dunk” assurance that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Alternatively, if the DNI attempts to manage expectations by saying he has “reasonable confidence” in the IC’s abilities to monitor Iran’s nuclear developments, he will be seen by many as confirming the limits of what the IC can do and will be characterized as “uncertain.”

Those who watch the IC closely will also be looking to see if DNI Clapper’s National Intelligence Mission Managers (NIMMs) construct for “integrating” intelligence from across the community is up to the task of detecting and warning if Iran does not meet its commitments under this agreement.  The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) ongoing reorganization into 10 integrated mission centers will also get an early test as it works to keep IC Customer #1 up to speed on Iranian compliance/non-compliance with this agreement as well as on Tehran’s future intentions regarding nuclear weapons.  Should Iran cheat and it not be detected in a timeframe that matters, this will be perceived as a strategic intelligence failure not unlike Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or the 2002 assessment that Iraq possessed WMDs – all of which lead to damning external reviews of the IC’s performance and then to major overhauls of the IC.

So while people are trying to figure out if this nuclear agreement with Iran is or is not in line with America’s national security interests, I have little doubt that this agreement just made the job being the DNI significantly more difficult – along with the NIMMs for Iran, Warning, and Science & Technology.  Success is expected; however, failure will not be tolerated!

That’s what I think; what do you think?

The ISIS Conundrum

I just finished watching a 17 minute discussion from the Wednesday night PBS NewsHour (10 June) moderated by anchor Judy Woodruff  with Leon Panetta, Michele Flournoy, Tony Zinni, and Andrew Bacevich discussing US policy/strategy in Iraq in light of President Obama’s decision to send 450 combat advisors there.   This link ( ) provides both the video of the discussion and a transcript.

I found this roundtable discussion both informative and distressing.  Informative because it framed the issues and exposed the various policy options. Distressing because all but Bacevich see ISIS threating US national interests, and yet Panetta and Flournoy believe we need Sunni Iraqis to defend those interests for us!  The elephant in the room mentioned but not really addressed is how to defeat (destroy?) ISIS without a long term US ground force commitment to the region.  Neat trick if it can be done.

With “due respect” to Ms. Flournoy, absent a large ground force commitment to Iraq I do not see Iran’s influence (military, religious, cultural, economic, and diplomatic) in the region waning.  Ergo, a reasonable strategy is for the US is to get out of the way and let Iran deal with ISIS while the US prepares to deal with Iran as an adversarial nation state regional power.  Does this mean the end of a sovereign Iraq?  Probably, but isn’t Iraqi sovereignty mostly de jure vice de facto?

It is my sense that what the American people want to hear is “no long term military commitment of ground forces to Iraq,” so if there is a threat to their safety from ISIS then the national security leadership needs to forcefully make that case … and expect it to be accepted or rejected in the 2016 election.  Alternatively, if the threat is now clear and present the President could request from Congress a declaration of war against ISIS or the Congress could offer such a declaration to the Commander in Chief.

Regarding the threat ISIS is presenting, I found Alex Ward’s recent article How Much Does ISIS Really Threaten America in THE NATIONAL INTEREST ( ) well-reasoned.

Agreeing with Ward, I would observe that ISIS is fully engaged in creating vice operating from a safe haven in Eastern Syria and Northwestern Iraq as it fights Iraq, Iran, and elements in Syria to create the Islamic State.  As threatening as ISIS inspired “lone wolfs” are it is difficult for me to see any of  them as being  more dangerous to the safety of American citizens in the homeland than James Holmes (Aurora Movie Theater mass murder), Adam Lanza (Newtown School Shooting), Jared Lee Loughner (Congress Woman Gifford shooting),  etc. all of whom were not ISIS motivated.

As Leon Panetta observed in the NewsHour roundtable, the destabilization ISIS is causing in the Middle East represents a  threat to US interests, but a case can be made that ISIS is actually an artifact of the instability that already existed in region from the Syrian Civil War and an ethically Balkanized Iraq.  More importantly though, how does ISIS enhancing the regional instability threaten the strategic safety of the US or even Israel?  They could achieve nation state status, but the Islamic State would be a poor country in rough neighborhood.  How about as a state sponsor of terrorism?  I don’t see the Islamic State as being in the same league as North Korea, Iran, Somalia, or even fracturing Yemen.  Without Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), terrorism is the tactic of choice of the militarily weak.

As effective as ISIS recruiting and radicalization appears to be, they have not shown the ability for their recruits to plan, let alone conduct, coordinated attacks.  Actually it is this inability to mount synchronized attacks that makes ISIS “lone wolves” difficult for the Intelligence and Law Enforcement Agencies to identify and disrupt them.

Alex Ward makes several recommendations for dealing more effectively with the ISIS threat as it exists (stop hyping it, focus on tracking returning “foreign fighters,” stop looking at motivation and pay attention to how ISIS attacks), to which I would add work on intelligence driven “honey pots” to identify ISIS radicals amongst us and develop analytics that extract “lone wolf” signatures out of their low signal to noise environments.  More strategically the US needs a narrative that dilutes if not counters the appeal of the ISIS narrative for disconnected people to fight and die for ISIS.

I find it disconcerting that 14 years after 9/11 and all the blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US still has not developed a rational for countering radical jihadism.  Beyond that over two administrations and several Congresses we have not yet agreed on what national interest are at stake in Iraq since it was found not to have WMD and Saddam was removed.  Nor have we developed a consensus around a national strategy for dealing with the rise of Iran.  In retrospect, preventing the North from overrunning the South and containing the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia was actually a more coherent strategy for American war policy in Vietnam than anything we have seen in the last ten years in the Middle East!

That’s what I think; what do you think?