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Politicized CENTCOM intelligence: Threat to US interests

Written By | Aug 11, 2016

WASHINGTON, August 11, 2016 — New reports suggest that the U.S. Central Command, CENTCOM, intentionally twisted intelligence about U.S. efforts against ISIS and al Qaeda, jeopardizing U.S. personnel and interests.

The Daily Beast reports that a House task force found that senior officers in CENTCOM’s intelligence directorate pressured analysts to soften information on the threat posed by ISIS and to suggest U.S. efforts against terrorists were more successful than analysts believed.

In intelligence community parlance, that means politicizing information, one of the cardinal sins of any intelligence organization. Whether intentional or not, politicized intelligence is never acceptable, is often deadly, and places a long-lasting blemish on the organization that perpetrates it.

According to the Daily Beast, the House task force is scheduled to release findings regarding CENTCOM politicization by the end of next week.

The controversy erupted last fall, after analysts reported pressure from higher-ups to paint a more positive picture of the counter-terror fight than the one they believed. A survey released by Stars and Stripes last December found that 40 percent of the 120 CENTCOM personnel in the analysis directorate stated that “somebody had attempted to distort or suppress their analysis within the past year despite persuasive evidence.” Specifically, analysts complained that reports were altered to downplay the threat and to boost U.S. successes against terrorists.

The DOD inspector general, the Armed Services Committee and two other House committees launched investigations of CENTCOM after the initial complaints from analysts.

The U.S. Central Command is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and has a forward headquarters in Qatar. It is responsible for the Middle East and North Africa; specifically, it is the Command responsible for Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and for the fight against ISIS.

Politicized intelligence breaks every cardinal rule of intelligence and sends chills down the spines of intelligence officers. Labelling someone’s information as slanted, or politicized, is the ultimate slap in the face. “It’s basically saying you are not professional and that whatever you are reporting is not actionable,” says one former CIA analyst. “In other words, you might as well not report anything at all, because your information is useless.”

Intelligence, the analysis of information, is more art than science. It involves taking data points from multiple sources with multiple viewpoints and connecting the dots to make coherent, comprehensive sense out of the information. Inexperienced analysts can unintentionally slant information to please superiors, but those tempted to change information are quickly weeded out. “We simply can’t allow that,” says one former high ranking CIA officer. “Our job isn’t to make you happy. It’s to give policy makers the information they need to make accurate decisions.”

Some CIA officers have quietly expressed concerns about military intelligence in the past. Because the military has a vested interest in information, CIA officers sometimes question whether it is possible for them to provide completely objective intelligence.

“We don’t ignore their information. It’s a critical part of what we analyze,” says a senior CIA officer stationed in Washington. “However, you do have to look at their situation and their interest, and wonder whether the skin they have in the game could unintentionally sway them. We look at them like any other source. What do they have to gain or lose from what they are saying?”

Allegations of politicizing intelligence are not new. The investigation into the attacks on the U.S. base in Benghazi raised questions about whether CIA intelligence was politicized at the highest levels. Then-director of the CIA, Mike Morell, testified to Congress that he personally was responsible for talking points used by the Obama Administration to explain the reason for the events of Benghazi.

Morrell went against established CIA policies of including contradictory information and stuck by his assertion that the attacks were the result of a video. He also intentionally ignored memos from the CIA Chief of Base in Benghazi, one of the highest ranking CIA officers in-country, and other officials in Libya who insisted that the attack was a premeditated al-Qaeda attack. Additional information showed that Morrell personally made revisions to intelligence to make the result fit what he believed was U.S. policy.

Robert Gates also has faced numerous accusations of politicizing intelligence to conform with the desires of policymakers, which ultimately forced him to withdraw from consideration as head of the CIA the first time his name went forward. Although Gates has repeatedly denied these accusations, the rumors remain. In his book, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman wrote, “Gates consistently told his analysts to make sure never to ‘stick your finger in the eye of the policymaker.’”

This disfiguring of intelligence counters every tenet of training provided to intelligence officers and analysts. “Cooking the books” cheapens information and undercuts the importance of intelligence.

The idea of slanted intelligence is disturbing, but it is most upsetting because of its impact. Intelligence that is intentionally manipulated often contradicts intelligence from other agencies, leaving decisionmakers with an unclear picture of the true situation.

Moreover, the executive branch, the legislative branch, military commanders and other decisionmakers allocate resources based on information provided by the various agencies. They decide whether to add troops or equipment, whether to withdraw, whether to reinforce existing positions, and other issues, based on information provided by intelligence agencies.

Politicized intelligence is inaccurate and irrelevant. It misleads decsionmakers and puts assets on the ground at risk.

If CENTCOM supervisors pressured analysts to paint rosy pictures regarding the threat of ISIS and al Qaeda, they jeopardized the lives of colleagues and other Americans.

Being the bearer of bad news is not always comfortable, but it is often necessary. Sometimes the information you least want to hear is the intelligence you most need.


Lisa M. Ruth

Lisa M. Ruth writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.