The Intelligence Community Can Get It Wrong For Avoidable Reasons

Daniel DePetris Fellow, Defense Priorities
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Timely, comprehensive, and accurate intelligence is an absolutely vital component to good policymaking. In the world of foreign affairs and national security, good intelligence information can often be the difference between a military operation that nets a senior terrorist commander or a blunder of historic proportions that can cause civilian casualties. The dedicated, professional, and hard-working men and women of the U.S. intelligence community do a tremendous job every single day, and yet the profession has received a beating over the past decade and a half.

When a policy goes haywire or an operation goes wrong, it is a common play in the Washington playbook to pass the blame on the intelligence professionals.  When no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, the actual policy decision to launch operations in Iraq wasn’t questioned. Instead, the Bush national security team pointed the finger at CIA Director George Tenet and the CIA leadership for providing assessments that were faulty and insufficient.

Yet there are times when the intelligence community does in fact get it wrong.

The fact that a joint congressional inquiry has revealed that some of these very same problems are occurring fourteen years later within the confines of U.S. Central Command — the command responsible for the counter-ISIS campaign — should be alarming to everyone both inside and outside the intelligence profession.

After 50 CENTCOM analysts signed on to a written complaint to the Defense Department Inspector General alleging that senior leadership was altering reports on the Islamic State, House lawmakers rightfully decided to establish an investigation looking into the claim.  What they discovered after nearly a year of review is disturbing.

Senior CENTCOM leadership figures, for instance, were permitted greater authority to edit or revise conclusions made by junior-level analysts before their reports were sent up the chain-of-command. “Survey results also indicated that multiple analysts felt that assessments were frequently edited to more positively reflect the situation on the ground,” the preliminary report found. As a result, judgments that were briefed to the CENTCOM Commander were far more positive or optimistic than what was occurring in Iraq and Syria at the time.

The feeling among the CENTCOM analytical community about distortion was reportedly widespread. According to the congressional report, “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.” And yet the congressional investigators found that these surveys were not given serious consideration by intelligence community leaders.

As one might expect, the press releases, public statements, and congressional testimony were all impacted by the bias to be more positive about counter-ISIS military operations.  Thus, in addition to lawmakers and administration officials not receiving objective analysis, the American people were given false information about the state of the war.

Viewed another way: the taxpayers who provide the Pentagon and the intelligence community with hundreds of billions of dollars every year weren’t afforded the blunt, honest truth of what their money bought them.

The Inspector General continues to investigate the claims made by CENTCOM’s analysts of politicization or distortion of intelligence products. But there are things that the intelligence community — and CENTCOM specifically — can do to ensure that assessments reported to senior policymakers are as accurate as possible.

For one, all intelligence agencies in the national security bureaucracy should have — and must have — strong systems that protect whistleblowers who have legitimate complaints about procedures, policies, processes, and management of the agency or unit they work for.  Every analyst and operator tasked with defending Americans overseas and promoting U.S. foreign policy interests around the world must have full confidence that any inappropriate hindrance to their work is reported and investigated — including complaints about senior leadership.  The disarray in CENTCOM’s intelligence units wouldn’t be known today if it weren’t for the fact that fifty analysts felt secure enough to bring their concerns to the attention of the Inspector General.

Secondly, the Director of National Intelligence must make it absolutely clear that any stovepiping of intelligence information or ban on coordination with other intelligence agencies is prohibited and will be dealt with harshly. The intelligence community must be on the same page, and any disagreements in the analysis should be known to every agency working on the problem. Hiding or debasing alternative assessments that may go against the grain doesn’t serve the policymaking process well.

More fundamentally, however, the leadership of the intelligence community must learn from the past. The problems that were identified by the 9/11 Commission and the WMD Commission shouldn’t be ignored, but acted upon.

Pleasing one’s superiors and telling them what they want to hear is unacceptable, and it should be treated by administrations — regardless of political parties — as an offense so serious that it leads to a termination.

Daniel R. DePetris is fellow at Defense Priorities and a Middle East and foreign policy analyst at Wikistrat, Inc. He can be followed on Twitter at @dandepetris.