Barack Obama says he wants the truth. On November 21, the New York Times reported allegations that military intelligence officials provided the president with skewed assessments that minimized the threat from ISIS and overstated the success of U.S. efforts against the group. The Times story was an update of reporting from the Daily Beast earlier this fall. “More than 50 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command have formally complained that their reports on ISIS and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials,” the Beast reported in September. These analysts say their superiors regularly massaged pessimistic assessments to make them more upbeat before sending them up the chain of command. The analysts registered their grievances with the inspector general at the Pentagon, who is investigating their claims.
Obama was asked about this investigation at a press conference on November 22. The president said he doesn’t know the details of the allegations. But he added: “What I do know is my expectation, which is the highest fidelity to facts, data—the truth.”
The allegations are serious. We’re told by sources with knowledge of the investigation that the analysts who made them knew well in advance they’d be filing an official complaint. So they were ready when they did, providing the IG with extensive documentation—going back more than a year—to support their claims.
Why were they so well prepared?
Among other reasons: They’d seen such pressures before, up close. And they understood that by formalizing their complaints they would be challenging not their immediate superiors alone but in some important respects an entire system that had encouraged analysts and other national security officials to downplay the jihadist threat.
The current storm over ISIS intelligence is not a new controversy, though most of the media are treating it as such. It’s better understood as an installment in a long-running scandal that extends beyond CENTCOM in Tampa, into the upper reaches of the U.S. intelligence community and perhaps into the White House.
Readers of this magazine are familiar with the story of the documents obtained in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Sensitive Site Exploitation team on the raid collected more than a million documents—papers, computer hard drives, audio and video recordings. Top Obama administration officials at first touted the cache as the greatest collection of terrorist materials ever captured in a single raid and boasted that the contents would fill a “small college library.” An interagency intelligence team, led by the CIA, conducted the initial triage—including keyword searches of the collection for actionable intelligence. And then, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials with firsthand knowledge of the controversy, the documents sat largely untouched for as long as a year. The CIA retained “executive authority” over the documents, and when analysts from other agencies requested access to them, the CIA denied it—repeatedly.
After a bitter interagency dispute, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, allowed analysts from CENTCOM and the Defense Intelligence Agency to have time-limited, read-only access to the documents. What they found was fascinating and alarming. Much of what these analysts were seeing—directly from Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders—contradicted what the president and top administration officials were saying publicly. While drone strikes had killed some senior al Qaeda leaders, the organization had anticipated the U.S. decapitation strategy and was flourishing in spite of it; bin Laden remained intimately involved in al Qaeda decision-making and operational planning; the relationship between al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban remained strong despite the Obama administration’s attempts to weaken it by negotiating with Taliban leaders; al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran, while uneven and fraught with mutual distrust, was far deeper and more significant than U.S. intelligence assessments had suggested.
Taken together, this new primary-source intelligence undercut happy-talk from the White House about progress in defeating jihadist terror. Al Qaeda wasn’t dying; it was growing. The Afghan Taliban wasn’t moderating; its leaders were as close to al Qaeda as ever. The same Iranian regime promising to abide by the terms of a deal to limit its nuclear program had provided safe haven for al Qaeda leaders and their families and had facilitated al Qaeda attacks on the interests of the United States and its allies.