How Would You Like Your Intel Prepared Sir?

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.”

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?

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?