U.S. Central Command, a government intelligence agency whose area of responsibility is the Middle East and Central Asia, found itself at the center of a political crisis after a joint task force report released on August 10 accused senior military officials of distorting analysis and portraying a more optimistic picture of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria than events on the ground warranted. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who was chief of CENTCOM at the time, gave an overly optimistic picture of the war against ISIS in a Senate hearing last year, while at the same time admitting only “four or five” US-backed rebels were on the ground operating in Syria. That disclosure drew rebukes from Congress and laughter around the world. It forced more questions about the information and process CENTCOM was using to inform policymakers and the public about its effectiveness.
Based on its own investigation, the Joint Task Force has substantiated that structural and management changes made at the CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate starting in mid-2014 resulted in the production and dissemination of intelligence products that were inconsistent with the judgments of many senior, career analysts at CENTCOM.
The role and responsibility of intelligence is to generate analysis that informs national policymakers so they can more effectively craft Public Policy. The report found that 40% of analysts believed their analysis had been distorted. Last year more than 50 intelligence analysts working out of CENTCOM had complained that their analysis of ISIS was being distorted by officials at the highest level. After an employee from the Joint Intelligence Office was reassigned for speaking up against cherry-picked intelligence, the dispute went to court and was given a rare public hearing before a government appeals board that forced the appearance of Gregory Ryckman, one of the officials accused of distorting intelligence and the top-ranking civilian at CENTCOM’s Joint Intelligence office, known as the J2. The employees accusations of distorted analysis are now widely believed to be correct, and the Initial Findings of the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Task Force on U.S. Central Command Intelligence Analysis concluded in their favor.
Democrats released an assessment that came to much of the same conclusions as the Republican House. They dispute the Republican charge that the Obama administration interfered in the intelligence cycle and pressed senior military officials at CENTCOM to create a more rosy picture of the ongoing fight against ISIS, pressing the case that the White House was as ill-informed of the politicization of the CENTCOM reports as anyone. Republicans charge that the White House sought to make it look like they were winning in the war against ISIS, at a time the radical terror group was expanding their reach and creating new terror cells across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
A Department of Defense Inspector General investigation into the matter is ongoing. Though the Congressional reports make no mention of accused officials by name, the DOD report may include their names and call for their dismissal from senior positions at CENTCOM.