THE 800 POUND GORILLA IN THE IC’S LIVING ROOM

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 (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/09/exclusive-50-spies-say-isis-intelligence-was-cooked.html  ), 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?

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2 comments on “THE 800 POUND GORILLA IN THE IC’S LIVING ROOM

  1. mazzajm1 says:

    Good piece by Robert. I am surprised though that he didn’t mention the “intel team” USDP Doug Feith was running post invasion of Iraq to vet intelligence for accuracy/relevance through a policy filter. He might have also brought up Michael Morell’s unfortunate experience the Benghazi Talking Points for Susan Rice’s Sunday talk show appearances. Robert reminds me that I should have discussed in my last MazzInt blog that it is common wisdom for IC analysts to know their customers intel needs as broadly and deeply and possible, which without careful self-assessment and objective review can lead to subliminal filtering of data or self-censoring. Robert also reminds us that one man’s politicization is another man’s imperfect analysis (e.g. confirmation bias; group think, self censoring, etc.)

    Article by Robert Tomes, who many of you know.

    http://warontherocks.com/2015/09/on-the-politicization-of-intelligence

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