The year 2015 has certainly been a stressful one for those involved with national security so I for one am happy to see it coming to close. That’s the good news, but as we all understand there has been no resolution to Russian adventurism, Chinese expansionism, North Korean unpredictability, Iraqi politics, Afghani violence, Iranian mischief, the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State’s wonton cruelty, or Jihadi inspired terrorism so barring some unforeseen epiphany 2016 looks like another year where the threats we have been suffering through will grow more dire rather than abate.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this panoply of national security threats the American people seemed to be war weary and increasingly isolationist until the ISIS Paris and San Bernardino attacks in November and December, respectively. Through Labor Day both the Democratic and Republican presidential primary debates were mostly “national security free zones” focusing on the economy, wealth inequality, policing, health care, and the domestic impacts of immigration. In the debates since 13 November, the discussion has shifted markedly to how candidates for president will protect Americans from threats generated abroad. Unfortunately, the discourse has lacked both specifics and substance as the candidates talk in soundbites about complex subjects such as responding to Russia and China’s use of military power, controlling the US border, bringing security to Afghanistan, achieving stability in Iraq, ending the Syrian Civil War, and defeating ISIS. From presidential candidates to pundits, though, there is rough general agreement that intelligence has never been more vital to insuring our national security.
This reality makes the gathering cloud of allegations that intelligence is being selectively tailored to meet different agendas in the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff even more disconcerting. Here’s what has been reported in the media so far:
- Since August the DoD Inspector General (IG) has been investigating charges from CENTCOM intelligence analysts that the command J2 was altering their products so they would align with the President’s position that progress is being made against ISIS. Subsequently these allegations of misconduct have extended to a possible cover-up with some analysts accusing the senior intelligence officials at CENTCOM of deleting emails and files from computer systems before the IG could examine them.
- On 13 November before the Paris Attacks President Obama with an ill-timed comment observed that “ISIS is contained.” Eight days later at press conference in Malaysia the President said he was expecting the DOD IG to provide him with a full and thorough investigation regarding the allegations about whether intelligence at CENTCOM was significantly altered as it moved up the chain of command. He went on to say that he has insisted since taking office that intelligence not be shaded by politics, adding “I have made it repeatedly clear to all my top national security advisers that I never want them to hold back, even if the intelligence, or their opinions about the intelligence, their analysis or interpretations of the data, contradict current policy.”
- Contemporaneously with the President’s comments in Kuala Lumpur, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, and House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen announced on 20 November the formation of a Joint Task Force “to investigate allegations that senior U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) officials manipulated intelligence products. In addition to looking into the specific allegations, the Joint Task Force will examine whether these allegations reflect systemic problems across the intelligence enterprise in CENTCOM or any other pertinent intelligence organizations.”
- Seymour Hersh on 20 December reported in a convoluted and anonymously sourced article for the London Book Review that the White House, CIA, and JCS are all using intelligence to advance their own differing end games with regard to Assad, Syria, and ISIS (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n01/seymour-m-hersh/military-to-military)
What all this tells me is that the DoD IG investigation of the CENTCOM allegations is not a happy story and may be just the flashing beacon for more serious issues about intelligence being used inappropriately by a variety of actors. Here is why I say this:
- The President’s remarks at the end of his Asia trip appear to be designed to distance and insulate him from potentially embarrassing intelligence practices.
- The House Joint Task Force indicates growing Congressional concerns about the creditability of intelligence being used to inform national policy and that the Congress is not willing to rely on the executive branch for information regarding IC performance.
- If there is substance to what Hersh is reporting, then the allegations of the CENTCOM J2 manipulating intelligence so that it would align with the Obama Administration’s views of the situation in the Middle East becomes a subset of a large issue:
- Is the IC responding to White House signals about the nature of the intelligence reporting the President would prefer to see and are CIA and JCS using intelligence to advance their own conflicting policy agendas with regard to Assad and ISIS?
Unless all this is quickly and plausibly debunked we are not far from the state of the IC becoming fodder for presidential and Congressional campaigns in 2016. This means more soundbites about what’s wrong with Intelligence and less than well thought-out ideas on how the IC should be reformed.
That’s what I think; what do think?