Congress probes claims U.S. military doctored counter-terrorism intel

March 22, 2013 change of command ceremony in which General James Mattis relinquished command of CENTCOM to General Lloyd Austin, at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa. (Photo Credit: DoD via Wikimedia Commons)

A Congressional investigation is underway regarding doctored  intelligence reports emanating from U.S. Central Command about the so-called Islamic State. A preliminary report says that in late 2014 and the first half of 2015, military leaders at CENTCOM minimized the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State, contradicting information gleaned by career intelligence analysts.

FSRN’s Nell Abram speaks with Tampa Bay Times military reporter Howard Altman, about the report and its implications for the credibility of the information that informed U.S. military action in the region.

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Nell Abram: Late last week, a Joint Congressional Task Force issued a blistering report saying high level intelligence officials in the U.S. military doctored reports about the battle against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, making it appear more successful than it actually was. The congressional probe began in late 2015, after a whistleblower reported concerns about intelligence handling at U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Howard Altman is a journalist with the Tampa Bay Times who specializes in the U.S. military and veteran’s affairs. He joins us to talk about the report. Howard, welcome to FSRN.

Howard Altman: Thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure.

NA: First, let’s start at the beginning. The congressional probe began last December, after a whistleblower came forward with concerns. Who was in charge of CENTCOM at the time and what were the allegations?

HA: At the time that the allegations take place, Army General Lloyd Austin III was in charge. And the allegations are that intelligence reports that were developed in CENTCOM’s intelligence directorate were manipulated to make it seem that the efforts to train Iraqi security forces were going better than the reality was, and also that Islamic State, the strength of that organization, was less than the reality was. They’re troubling allegations, obviously, because you never want to have intelligence manipulated for any particular reason, and needs to be pure in terms of what’s going on.

NA: What does the preliminary report find?

HA: Several things. One, it is a toxic atmosphere in the Joint Intelligence Center at CENTCOM, which is where this information is taken in and developed and presented up the chain, and that there was concern that the information was being sweetened to make it look like the situation was better than it really was. There’s two things to me that really jump out that is most concerning: there’s an annual survey conducted of attitudes and process and objectivity in the intelligence community, and of 125 analysts and managers that responded over 50 percent of the analysts responded that CENTCOM’s procedures, practices and processes hampered objective analysis, and 40 percent said that they experienced an attempt to distort or suppress intelligence in the past year. There were comments that were included, and 32 of the 71 people made direct allegations of distortions of intelligence to fit a positive narrative, and that’s really concerning. The other thing that jumps out is that the leaders of CENTCOM and the intelligence community didn’t react to this; the whistleblower came forward in May of 2015, the result of this survey presented to CENTCOM leadership in December of 2015.  So, there’s a concern by the intelligence experts I talk to that these situations weren’t dealt with earlier.

NA: Let’s place this in context: The probe begins just about the same time that self-styled Islamic State quickly took control of three Iraqi cities – Ramadi, Mosul and Tikrit. Just weeks later, the U.S. began airstrikes. CENTCOM is the military epicenter of this now two-year, massive bombing campaign that’s involved thousands of U.S. troops and killed an unknown number of civilians. In fact, one independent monitoring group, Airwars, says at least 1,509 combatants have died in Iraq and Syria  and that number could be much higher. Is it fair to say that the U.S. decision to begin military action against ISIS in Iraq went it did, and the pace at which it has pursued the battle, was informed by doctored intelligence analyses?

HA: It’s hard to say, to be honest. They’re looking at what took place, really starting in  late 2013, early 2014. Islamic State rose up in Syria in 2013 and then by June, 2014, it’s taken over Mosul and other cities in Iraq, as well as Raqqa, which is its putative capital. Clearly there were indications from some people in the intelligence community that it reported that this is a concerning organization that should be taken seriously. I had one Iraqi general tell me – he’d been in Tampa in the spring of 2014 – (he’d been) warning people this organization is something to be taken seriously. Whether this is a result of doctored intelligence, I don’t think that the report really knows that yet. My reading of the report is that it may have. I don’t know if it’s clear that it definitely did, and there’s certainly greater levels of investigation that have to take place here.

NA: So where does this probe go from here?

HA: The House panel is continuing to investigate. And by the way, the Democrats on the House came up with a different finding. They looked and they saw problems, but they didn’t believe it was politicized. So this investigation is continuing, and there’s one that is going on with the Department of Defense, obviously the Inspector General is looking into this as well. My hope would be that they really do take a greater look at some of the processes and procedures – some of the specific reports that are claimed to be doctored – and interview those people who were in charge at the time and get their take on why this was done. None of this is in the House report, nor is there any explanation of why this would have been done, nor is there any direct link to the White House.

NA: Finally, there’s been a change of command at CENTCOM since the period which is under review. Is there any indication whether any of these systems or procedures or cooperation levels between intelligence agencies has changed since that change of chain of command?

HA: Reports say that things have improved since Joe Votel took over March 31 of this year. Votel clearly knows the command. Before he became the CENTCOM commander, he was with SOCOM – U.S. Special Operations Command, also at MacDill Air Force Base – and he was neighbors with General Austin. He was read into what was going on, so he clearly had an understanding of the issues before he got there.

Howard Altman is a journalist covering U.S. military and veteran’s affairs with the Tampa Bay Times. He spoke to FSRN in the studios of WMNF in Tampa, Florida.

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