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Analysts Detail Claims That Reports on ISIS Were Distorted
A group of intelligence analysts have provided investigators with documents they say show that senior military officers manipulated the conclusions of reports on the war against the Islamic State, according to several government officials, as lawmakers from both parties voiced growing anger that they may have received a distorted picture about the military campaign's progress.
The Pentagon's inspector general, who is examining the claims, is focusing on senior intelligence officials who supervise dozens of military and civilian analysts at United States Central Command, or Centcom, which oversees American military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Bridget Serchak, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon's inspector general, confirmed that the investigation is focused on Centcom's intelligence command. "The investigation will address whether there was any falsification, distortion, delay, suppression or improper modification of intelligence information," she said in an email on Tuesday.
She added that the inquiry would examine any "personal accountability for any misconduct or failure to follow established processes."
The New York Times reported last month that the investigation had begun, but the scope of the inquiry and the focus of the allegations were unclear. The officials now say that the analysts at the center of the investigation allege that their superiors within Centcom's intelligence operation changed conclusions about a number of topics, including the readiness of Iraqi security forces and the success of the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.
The revisions presented a more positive picture to the White House, Congress and other intelligence agencies, the officials said.
"The senior intelligence officers are flipping everything on its head," said one government intelligence analyst, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The analyst said that the complaints involve the highest-ranking officials in Centcom's intelligence unit, run by Army Maj. Gen. Steven R. Grove.
The Pentagon's inspector general would not examine disputes over routine differences among analysts, and so it is highly unusual that an investigation would be opened about the intelligence conclusions in an ongoing war. The allegations raise the prospect that military officials were presenting skewed assessments to the White House and lawmakers that were in sharp contrast with the conclusions of other intelligence agencies.
The issue is expected to come up Wednesday when Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of Central Command, is expected to testify before a Senate panel about the military campaign against the Islamic State.
"We do take seriously any allegations of the mishandling or manipulation of intelligence information for purposes other than getting to ground truth," Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday. "In the wake of the flawed intelligence prior to the Iraq war, we must make sure that all voices are appropriately considered and that assessments are never again politicized."
Last week, Mr. Schiff said that the intelligence presentations that lawmakers get from spy agencies are in general far better than they were in the period leading up to the start of the Iraq war in 2003, when dissenting views about Iraq's weapons programs were often buried in intelligence reports or ignored. Today, he said, dissenting views are given more prominence in reports.
Disagreements over analytical conclusions are both commonplace and encouraged. Just as in the peer review process in academia, the government wants analysts to consider opposing viewpoints and revise reports as necessary. Analysts who disagree are encouraged to publish rival papers, but changing someone else's conclusion is forbidden.
The matter is complicated because the analysts who made the complaint work for the Defense Intelligence Agency – it was created to be immune from the pressures and biases of the officers leading the war – but are supervised by officers at Centcom. At least one analyst complained to the inspector general in July. Last week, The Daily Beast reported that those complaints were supported by a cadre of more than 50 intelligence agents.
Col. Patrick S. Ryder, a Centcom spokesman, on Tuesday reiterated several points he had made when news of the investigation broke last month. The inspector general has a responsibility to investigate all allegations, he said, and he cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.
But Colonel Ryder said that because many different intelligence agencies provide assessments to policy makers – all derived from a wide range of sources – the system is structured to guard against "any single report or opinion unduly influencing leaders and decision makers."
On Friday, Pentagon investigators held a conference call with members of Congress as a growing, bipartisan chorus of lawmakers expressed concerns about the dispute. One official who listened to the call said it was intended to assure lawmakers that investigators were taking the claims seriously.
That same afternoon, both the Republican chairman of the House oversight committee, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, and a colleague sent letters to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and John T. Rymer, the Pentagon inspector general, asking that Pentagon officials brief his committee about the scope of the inquiry and its findings.
"We are deeply concerned about these allegations and want to ensure that intelligence provided to key decision makers properly reflect the expert analysis produced by our Intelligence Community (IC) professionals," the letter said.
Last summer President Obama authorized a bombing campaign against the Islamic State, a Sunni terrorist group that spun off from Al Qaeda and now controls large areas in Iraq and Syria. Roughly 3,400 American troops are in Iraq advising and training Iraqi forces. The White House has been reluctant, though, to recommit large numbers of ground troops to Iraq after announcing an end to the Iraq war in 2009.
The bombing campaign over the past year has had some success in allowing Iraqi forces to reclaim parts of the country formerly under the Islamic State's control, but important cities like Mosul and Ramadi remain under the sway of the group. There has been little progress in loosening the group's hold over large parts of Syria, where the United States has conducted limited airstrikes.
Critics have argued that the bombing alone cannot defeat the Islamic State and have called on the administration to send in more troops. It is not clear if Defense Intelligence Agency analysts have concluded that more American troops would make an appreciable difference.
In testimony on Capitol Hill this year, Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the agency's director, said sending ground troops back into Iraq risked transforming the conflict into one between the West and the Islamic State, which would be "the best propaganda victory that we could give."
[Source: By Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times, Washington, 15Sep15]
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