Last week, The Daily Beast reported some 50 intelligence analysts working for the U.S. military’s Central Command formally complained senior officials were altering the bottom line of their reports on ISIS and al Qaeda’s efforts in Syria.
The complaints spurred the Pentagon’s inspector general to open an investigation into the alleged manipulation of intelligence. The fact that so many people complained suggests there are deep-rooted, systemic problems in how the U.S. military command charged with the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State assesses intelligence.
This should come as no surprise: the Department of Defense has a long and storied tradition of trying to exploit intelligence analysis to support its budget and its operations.
Unlike CIA, policymaking is a core function at the DOD and its component commands. This frequently means political appointees — and the officers and bureaucrats that support them — have vested interests in ensuring that analysis support their operations and programs. This is hardly a new phenomenon.
Here’s one example: during the mid-1970s, the Department of Defense—then under the leadership of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—argued CIA was downplaying the threat of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and lobbied for the formation of a “Team B” to revisit Intelligence Community estimates.
Sound familiar? Over the course of four years this team of outside experts looked at the information. Team B’s work was quickly dismissed, including by the Director of Central Intelligence who authorized the group’s formation: George H.W. Bush.
Fast forward to Operation Iraqi Freedom: Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, tells the story of the Office of Special Plans. The article is both both sad and laughable but similar to the story of Team B: “…Special Plans was created in order to find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true.”
The truths they wanted? That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that al Qaeda was connected to Saddam Hussein’s regime, effectively making Baghdad responsible in part for the attacks of September 2001.
The CIA determined Saddam and al Qaeda had no connection and we all know the story of Iraq’s WMD—which is, in and of itself, was another case study of the politicization of intelligence.
“Believed to be true” is a low bar for the commitment of Americans troops and treasure in pursuit of a foreign policy goal, particularly when the belief is rooted more in ideology than national interest. Worth noting: Operation Iraqi Freedom ended up costing the American taxpayers nearly $2 trillion and the lives of nearly 4,500 American service men and women.
CIA, which prides itself on a tradition of “speaking truth to power,” has an ombudsman to guard against this type of politicization. Does this mean CIA analysis is perfect? Of course not—intelligence analysis will never be perfect; it’s an art and an imperfect one at that. Does the presence of an ombudsman mean CIA is immune from political pressures? Absolutely not.
Analysis drafted within the confines of a policy-making bureaucracy almost certainly will justify and support the organization’s objectives. What DOD analysts are alleging happened within the confines of CENTCOM should, bureaucratically speaking, be expected, by nature, of the DOD.
That said, a lack of dispassionate analysis and candid, evidence-based discussion and debate all but condemns us to repeats of the sins of the Office of Special Plans and risks making foreign policy gambits like the Iraq war a familiar scenario.
Strategically speaking, however, the analysts’ unsurprising allegations reflect a larger much more concerning trend: the DOD’s desire to have greater control over the forming, executing, assessing, and presenting US national security policy. As early as the early 2000s, the Department of Defense reportedly was looking to develop a more robust intelligence capability, a trend that continues as it works to expand their covert action capabilities.
Despite common complaints that there needs to be more effective diplomatic solutions to the challenges confronting the United States, the Department of Defense is organized and resourced in ways that frequently allow it to eclipse the Department of State.
ISIS is a real national security conundrum for the United States. Diminishing the challenge they pose in a bid to make existing policy look effective is a disservice to the nation.
Ultimately, moving responsibilities within organizations with little thought given to how bureaucratic interests and equities will shape the stories they tell isn’t the way to advance American interests or policymaking. Clearly defined boxes with roles and responsibilities—even if one of the responsibilities is to periodically given voice to unpopular truths—are required to get the job one.
While CIA does have a limited military capability by virtue of its Title 50 authorities, it would be laughable if the Agency used those authorities to assert the need for an aircraft carrier. Any organization that moves beyond its historical strengths and core competencies should be subject to intense scrutiny. Why is it any less laughable to expand DOD capabilities into spaces where they have a spotty track record at best?
So, to all government agencies, stay in your lane.
Nada Bakos is a former analyst and targeting officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. She has a forthcoming memoir in 2016, published by Little, Brown.
Sgt. Brock D. Chase (left), Spc. James D. Hinks (center), and Spc. Elizabeth Lawson make a crab boil at Forward Operating Base Mahmudiyah, Iraq, May 22, 2009. (US Army)