Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cooking the Intel Books

You remember the refrain: "Bush lied, people died."  That phrase took on a life of its own following the invasion of Iraq; the "failure" to discover Saddam's alleged WMD arsenal, and allegations that intel assessments had been altered--if not actually fabricated--to support administration policies.

As a grand conspiracy, it had to be the greatest of all times.  Turns out that not only did U.S. intelligence believe that Saddam Hussein had resurrected his WMD program, so did the spooks in the UK, France, Germany, Russia and just about every other country with a credible intel service.  The problems, as later documented by independent review panels in the U.S. and Great Britain, was "group think" among intelligence experts who feared down-playing a potential threat in the post 9-11 world.  

It's a phenomenon I've experienced first-hand.  As a analyst, I know the perils of challenging the status quo or what the community refers to as the "consensus" about a particular situation  or threat.  Once the template is set, it takes very compelling evidence to change an assessment, particularly on something as important as an enemy's WMD capabilities and a potential decision to go to war.

Journalist Judith Miller, who would never be described as a member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," nicely summarized the issue--and its impact on policy decisions--in a piece written earlier this year:

"No, President Bush did not take America into a war because he was strong-armed by a neoconservative cabal. As President Bush himself famously asserted, he was the “decider.” And no, he didn’t go to war for oil. If we wanted Saddam’s oil, we could have bought it.

President’s Bush decision to go to war was based on the information that he and his team relied on -- information that was collected by the world’s top agents and analyzed by the world’s top analysts, including the intelligence agencies of France, Germany and Russia, countries whose leaders did not support going to war. But they all agreed on one thing -- Saddam had and was continuing to develop WMD.

Our intelligence professionals, and those of major European countries, overestimated Saddam’s capabilities. Mistakes like that filter through the system -- from the White House to Congress to journalists to the public. And those mistakes impact policy. But here’s the key thing to remember -- they were mistakes…not lies."

But what if intelligence estimates were "sexed-up" (borrowing the Brits' term) to support a favored narrative or policy option?  According to a House of Representatives Joint Task Force, that's exactly what happened at US Central Command (CENTCOM), after intel analysts filed a whistle-blower complaint, alleging that assessments were manipulated to "present an unduly positive outlook" on CENTCOM efforts to train the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and combat ISIS.  

Appointed by the chairmen of three House committees (Armed Services, Intelligence and Oversight), the task force has released its interim conclusions on the matter.  And it's not a pretty picture; Congressional investigators found that changes in the command's intelligence directorate (J-2) "resulted in the production and dissemination of intelligence products that were inconsistent with the judgments of many senior, career analysts at CENTCOM."  

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  According to the report, the work environment in the J-2 began to deteriorate after the departure of CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and his senior intelligence leadership.  Mattis, a legend in the Marine Corps and one of the finest general officers of his generation, was forced out in Tampa in 2013, after running afoul of President Obama and his national security team.  

Mattis's replacement brought in a new J-2, Army Major General Steven Grove.  Under his leadership, the directorate established a new Analytic Review Team (ART) to improve the "quality and consistency" of products generated by analysts working in the command's Joint Intelligence Center (JIC).  According to investigators, the ART quickly grew from a single reviewer to a multi-member team, and resulted in slower production of intelligence assessments.  The analyst who filed the whistle-blower complaint alleged that the ART was used by senior intel leaders to exert more control over J-2 reporting and its contents.  Other analysts claimed the rationale for the ART was never fully explained and CENTCOM's previous, three-step review process provided a "more than adequate" quality control process.  

About the same time (summer of 2014), General Grove also created a "fusion center" within the J-2 to provide additional reporting that focused on ISIS and related issues.  Some analysts told investigators that it was "never clear" how JIC personnel would contribute to the new center; others claimed the fusion team actually became something of a dumping ground for intel specialists whose views disagreed with those of senior intelligence leaders.  

Analysts also stated that changes in the J-2s daily intel summary (or INTSUM) were also used by leadership to tighten control over assessments and their findings.  Additionally, the task force found that CENTCOM's intelligence directorate relied too heavily on operational reporting to "soften" their estimates, and (perhaps most damning), they discovered that the more "optimistic" assessments were not supported by estimates from other elements of the intel community. 

And, there was an unprecedented amount of "coordination" between the J-2 and officials at the top of the intel chain.  From the task force summary:

The CENTCOM Director of Intelligence or his deputy had, and continue to have, secure teleconferences with the Joint Staff Director of Intelligence and senior ODNI leaders—frequently including the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). These calls took place several times per week before daily intelligence briefings by the DNI to the President. Senior CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate leaders reported that neither the Director of the DIA nor other COCOM Directors of Intelligence have participated in these calls.

The frequency of these interactions could have provided CENTCOM leaders with outsized influence on the material presented to the President outside of formal coordination channels. These frequent interactions are at odds with the DNI James Clapper’s testimony to Congress that “intelligence assessments from CENTCOM…come to the national level only through the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In other words, Clapper was "consulting" with CENTCOM just before his daily brief to President Obama, but the information he received was never vetted against data from other agencies.  At best, that's sloppy, inexcusable tradecraft.  At worst, it's "cooked" intelligence, offering carefully-tailored analysis from a single source that fits a desired narrative.  Obviously, that the more "sunny" assessments from CENTCOM meshed nicely with administration claims of "progress" in the war against ISIS.  

This is intelligence malpractice of the first magnitude, and the analysts at Central Command were justified in filing a formal complaint.  Unfortunately, it looks like nothing will come of it, although the DoD Inspector General is continuing its own probe into the matter.  General Grove has moved on to a new assignment, and his civilian deputy (identified as a key participant in the analytic scheme) remains in place at CENTCOM.  And Jim Clapper is still gainfully employed as well.  

Many spooks, current and former, once had great respect for General Clapper, who enjoyed a brilliant career in the Air Force and later, won plaudits for his management of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) under President Bush.  But as DNI, he has been a tremendous disappointment.  He lied in testimony before Congress on NSA domestic collection efforts in 2013, and now, he's been caught in another fib about how military intelligence on ISIS reaches the highest levels of our government.  

But DNIs serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief and Clapper isn't going anywhere.  He has apparently mastered the fine art of telling his boss what he wants to hear, which speaks volumes about that "modified" analytic and production processes at CENTCOM, and the preferences of the man who is the ultimate consumer of that intelligence.                   

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