Earlier this summer, we learned the Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that the intelligence on ISIS was manipulated. Analysts at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, formally complained to the IG that analysis contradicting the Obama administration’s narrative on ISIS was routinely challenged, rewritten, or disregarded. The administration was eager to sell the story that the campaign against ISIS was going well; much of the intelligence made clear it wasn’t. That intelligence was buried, and the happy talk continued.
We’re encouraged that the inspector general is taking seriously these reports of intelligence manipulation. To understand the problem, however, the IG will have to expand its investigation, because precisely the same thing happened before.
From 2011 through 2013, top Obama administration and intelligence officials downplayed and discarded intelligence on al Qaeda and its activities. As President Obama sought to convince the American public that al Qaeda was dying, analysts at CENTCOM were quietly providing assessments showing the opposite was true. In 2012, as administration officials made their public claims, the briefings they received from the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, included assessments that al Qaeda had doubled in strength over the preceding two years. A top DIA official was told directly to stop producing reports based on documents collected during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. And when a member of the House Intelligence Committee sought to investigate these allegations of manipulation, he was misled repeatedly.
So the intelligence manipulation now making headlines is not a new scandal, but a broadening of an earlier one—the systematic and willful effort to sell the American people a false narrative about the global jihadist movement and our efforts to defeat it.
On Friday, May 17, 2013, Rep. Devin Nunes flew to Tampa. In the months before, Nunes, now chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had spoken to several officials with access to the documents captured during the bin Laden raid two years earlier. These officials were alarmed. What they were seeing in the files contradicted Obama administration claims about al Qaeda and its reach. In many cases, the documents were primary sources, received or authored by bin Laden himself.
So Nunes arranged a meeting at CENTCOM to learn more. He was told before his trip that analysts involved in the exploitation of the documents would brief him on their findings. And at CENTCOM, the analysts charged with briefing Nunes spent the better part of two days preparing for their meeting.
But when Nunes arrived at CENTCOM on Saturday morning, he was told the analysts were unavailable. Surprised and frustrated, Nunes threatened to hold a press conference in front of CENTCOM’s main gate to share publicly what he’d been told about the intelligence and to accuse CENTCOM of playing games. Maj. Gen. Scott Berrier, the top intelligence officer at CENTCOM (the J2), apologized for any misunderstanding but told Nunes that the analysts who could brief him were unavailable.
“Informants came to me in late 2012 stating that they had information related to the bin Laden raid and the analysis of intelligence,” Nunes told The Weekly Standard last week. “I set up a time to travel down to CENTCOM and requested to meet with the analysts involved. When I arrived, it was on a Saturday, and I was not allowed to meet with them. It wasn’t until after I spent all day Saturday there with the J2 and leadership that I found out those analysts were actually in the building that day prepared to brief me.”
Berrier, now the commanding general of the Army Intelligence Center of Excellence at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, declined to comment. But sources inside CENTCOM support Nunes’s version of events.
“The analysts had prepared a detailed briefing on several aspects of the documents,” says one intelligence official, adding that they had pulled an all-nighter to finish their preparations. The topics included: Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda, bin Laden’s involvement in the day-to-day operations of al Qaeda, and his operations guidance to offshoots, such as Boko Haram. The administration had portrayed bin Laden as a lonely, relatively powerless figurehead of a deteriorating terror network. Many of the documents made clear that this depiction was inaccurate.