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Intel on ISIS Skewed to be Positive by CENTCOM High Command, Report Says

A scathing report released today by the House of Representatives Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Department of Defense Central Command (CENTCOM) Intelligence Analysis stated that “structural and management changes made at the CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate (J2) starting in mid-2014 resulted in the production and dissemination of intelligence products [regarding the growth and strength if ISIS] … were inconsistent with the judgments of many senior, career analysts at CENTCOM.”

On May 28, 2015, “an analyst assigned to CENTCOM filed a formal complaint with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Inspector General (DIAIG) regarding a matter of ‘urgent concern’ … alleg[ing] that senior leaders within the CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate and Joint Intelligence Center [JIC], including the Director of Intelligence and other senior intelligence staff, violated regulations, tradecraft standards and professional ethics by modifying intelligence assessments to present an unduly positive outlook on CENTCOM efforts to train the Iraqi Security Forces and combat ISIL.

“These products were consistently more optimistic regarding the conduct of US military action than that of the senior analysts,” the report found. “Based on specific case studies evaluated by the Joint Task Force, during the time period evaluated by the Joint Task Force, CENTCOM produced intelligence that was also significantly more optimistic than that of other parts of the Intelligence Community (IC) and typically more optimistic than actual events warranted. Additionally, many CENTCOM press releases, public statements and congressional testimonies were also significantly more positive than actual events.”

Following the complaint made by the intelligence analyst, Department of Defense Inspector General (DODIG) has been conducting an entirely separate but parallel “high priority” investigation into whether there was improper manipulation of intelligence and/or deviations from appropriate processes regarding intelligence analysis within the CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate.

A Pentagon source familiar with the matter told Homeland Security Today on background that it’s “expected heads will role, perhaps at the highest levels of CENTCOM leadership.”

On December 11, 2015, the chairmen of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Committee on Armed Services and the Subcommittee on Defense of the House Committee on Appropriations established the Joint Task Force to investigate the allegations that “senior CENTCOM officials inappropriately manipulated intelligence products to more positively characterize efforts to combat ISIL. In addition to looking into the specific allegations, the Joint Task Force was tasked with examining whether these allegations reflect systemic intelligence problems at CENTCOM or any other relevant intelligence organizations.”

According to the report, “The leadership environment within CENTCOM and its Intelligence Directorate deteriorated significantly following the 2013 departure of Marine Gen. James Mattis and his senior intelligence leaders. Survey results provided to the Joint Task Force demonstrated that dozens of analysts viewed the subsequent leadership environment as toxic, with 40 percent of analysts responding that they had experienced an attempt to distort or suppress intelligence in the past year. While the Joint Task Force heard testimony that the environment slowly began to improve following the initiation of the DODIG investigation in mid-2015, many issues persisted until the arrival of Army Gen. Joseph Votel and the new head of CENTCOM’s Intelligence Directorate.”

The results of annual Analytic Objectivity and Process Survey by the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) conducted from August through October 2015, which included responses from 125 analysts and managers within CENTCOM, “were significantly worse than those of other IC agencies or COCOMs [Combat Commands], and showed that a substantial number of CENTCOM respondents felt their supervisors distorted, suppressed or substantially altered analytic products. Over 50 percent of analysts responded that CENTCOM procedures, practices, processes and organizational structures hampered objective analysis, and 40 percent responded that they had experienced an attempt to distort or suppress intelligence in the past year. Yet despite receiving these results in December 2015, CENTCOM and IC leaders did not take corrective actions to address many of the issues identified in the survey results."

Additionally, the JTF report found, “In addition to generating the numerical summary-level results, the [ODNI] survey allowed participants to add comments regarding their responses. The Joint Task Force was provided with a redacted copy of these comments, in which all information that could specifically identify the respondents had been removed. Of the 71 comments, 32 included direct allegations of distortion of intelligence to fit a positive narrative, and an additional 26 comments raised broader tradecraft or process concerns. Of note, four separate comments alleged that products were delayed or altered to avoid conflicting with senior officials’ testimony to Congress.”

“Starting in mid-2014, CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate leadership instituted various organizational and process changes that negatively affected the quality and timeliness of intelligence production,” the report stated, noting that, “CENTCOM senior leaders claimed these changes were intended to improve analytic tradecraft and timeliness, but the changes ultimately were unsuccessful and had the opposite effect. Many of these changes in the review and coordination process have since been reversed.”

“Furthermore,” the JTF report said, “senior leaders also relied on details reported from coalition forces rather than more objective and better documented intelligence reporting. The Joint Task Force can find no justifiable reason why operational reporting was repeatedly used as a rationale to change the analytic product, particularly when the changes only appeared to be made in a more optimistic direction. By supplanting analytic tradecraft with unpublished and ad hoc operational reporting, Joint Intelligence Center leadership circumvented important processes that are intended to protect the integrity of intelligence analysis.”

Continuing, the report disclosed that, “Throughout the Joint Task Force interviews, many analysts described multiple organizational and process changes which senior leaders instituted within the CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate from June 2014 into early 2015. Although many interviewees recounted changes that slowed the intelligence output at a crucial time, there was disagreement on the putative reasons for the changes. While the whistleblower and some analysts described the changes as a method to increase leadership control of analytic products, other analysts disagreed, explaining that they viewed the changes as a legitimate response to the increased pace of production occasioned by the ISIL threat, coupled with preexisting efforts to improve the consistency and quality of CENTCOM’s intelligence products. Some analysts were unable to ascribe motives to the changes, but agreed that the rationale for them was not clearly understood in the JIC. Some analysts, including the whistleblower, stated that the effect of these changes was to slow the review process or to alter the analysis such that the final products no longer reflected the views or analytic judgment of senior, career intelligence analysts. For instance, senior leaders could now more directly modify key analytic judgements made by career analysts.”

The report further revealed that “analysts indicated that CENTOM Intelligence Directorate leadership consistently ‘softened’ intelligence assessments to provide more uncertainty regarding possibleoutcomes. Analysts described the leadership as risk-averse and unwilling to accept uncertainty in intelligence analysis—which by its very nature deals in probabilities and contingencies rather than certainties. Survey results also indicated that multiple analysts felt that assessments were frequently edited to more positively reflect the situation on the ground.”

The Joint Task Force reported that DOD provided it “with a limited set of CENTCOM finished intelligence products and coordinated analytic positions. Based upon the Joint Task Force’s review of these CENTCOM analytic positions, there was a consistent trend that across four specific campaigns against ISIL in Iraq throughout 2014 and 2015, assessments approved by the J2 or JIC leadership were consistently more positive than those presented by the IC."

"Additionally, the JTF report said, "the selected ISIL weekly and monthly products for CENTCOM senior-leader consumption were generally more positive than similar products not produced for, and unlikely to be seen by, the CENTCOM Commander. While a full examination of the analytic assessments requires classified details, public statements by IC leaders provide an unclassified reference point for IC judgments. In February 2015, the Director of the DIA stated that “defeats of the Iraqi Security Forces and the collapse of multiple army divisions highlight large-scale institutional deficiencies” and in March 2015 the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency stated that “ISIL is well-armed and well-financed. Its fighters are disciplined, committed and battle hardened…[and ISIL] will not be rolled back overnight.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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