Did the Pentagon Cook the Books on Its Afghanistan Intel?

Did the Pentagon Cook the Books on Its Afghanistan Intel?

Lawmakers are probing whether senior U.S. military officers skewed intelligence reports about Afghanistan, raising new questions about whether policymakers can trust the accuracy of the Pentagon’s assessments of the nation’s wars.

The investigation, which has not been reported previously, adds a new dimension to the politically explosive scandal hanging over the military’s Central Command, where top officers stand accused of deliberately skewing their analysis of the campaign against the Islamic State to exaggerate successes while downplaying serious setbacks.

The allegations of the Pentagon cooking the books about both Afghanistan and the Islamic State will be at the center of a new congressional probe led by the leaders of three of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill. Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee, told Foreign Policy that he and the chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee are forming a task force “to investigate numerous allegations of the manipulation of intelligence by Centcom officials.”

The congressional inquiry likely will involve visits to Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to interview officials and officers handling intelligence, staffers said. The lawmakers will be posing tough questions to Maj. Gen. Steven Grove, head of intelligence at Centcom since June 2014, who has come under intense scrutiny since the allegations first came to light.

The two-star general is “a strong personality,” according to one former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) official, but he has not earned a reputation previously for meddling with intelligence analyses.

The new probe comes just months after the senior intelligence analyst on Iraq at Centcom, Gregory Hooker, backed up by dozens of equally disgruntled analysts, told the Defense Department’s inspector general that intelligence assessments about the Islamic State were being distorted and watered down by top officials and officers. The analysts went to the inspector general after trying and failing to resolve the problem within the command.

Now, according to people familiar with the matter, there is mounting concern that intelligence reports about Afghanistan were also deliberately slanted. The Pentagon’s annual assessments of Afghanistan, mandated by Congress, have consistently been far more optimistic about the state of the war effort against the Taliban than the classified reports produced by the CIA, according to people familiar with both sets of reports. The differences have led to years of high-level tension between senior military officers and their counterparts at Langley, these people said.

A former senior intelligence officer who maintains contact with his former colleagues said many analysts at Centcom are frustrated over what they see as inappropriate interference by senior leaders in their assessments of Afghanistan and other topics.

“A lot of the analysts at Centcom feel the high command has been sugarcoating their assessments,” the former senior intelligence officer said.

The allegations carry some uncomfortable parallels with the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, in which President George W. Bush’s White House was accused of misusing intelligence and hyping the threat posed by dictator Saddam Hussein. Barack Obama as a presidential candidate slammed the Bush administration over the issue.

The case is raising serious questions about whether the military or the Obama administration tried to present an unrealistic picture of progress on the battlefield and whether the independent role of the intelligence community has been undermined. The complaints from intelligence analysts have come amid growing criticism of Obama’s war strategy against the Islamic State, with some lawmakers accusing the White House of refusing to acknowledge that the military campaign has largely failed to dislodge the group from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

Spokespeople for the Pentagon, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and Central Command declined to comment about the new Afghanistan-related allegations. But Centcom’s Col. Patrick Ryder said that the command takes all allegations about the handling of intelligence “very seriously” and that it is cooperating with both the inspector general and congressional inquiries. He reiterated that Centcom looks at a range of sources as part of an assessment process that “guards against any single report or opinion unduly influencing leaders and decision-makers.”

Since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies have clashed repeatedly about claims of progress in the war, the potency of the insurgency, and the strength of Afghan security forces. In 2010, a National Intelligence Estimate contradicted upbeat appraisals by the military’s top brass, concluding there was a limited chance of achieving success in Afghanistan due to insurgent sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan.

But the latest allegations about Centcom would mean military officers are trying to actively suppress negative intelligence reports about the outlook in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers from both parties have voiced serious concern about the allegations against Centcom and have vowed to watch the case closely, though they had held off on launching their own inquiries while the Pentagon’s inspector general gathers information.

That’s now changing, with Nunes, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, forming a joint task force to probe the case while the Defense Department watchdog continues its own work.

Democrats on the three House committees have not signed on to the inquiry, and the relevant committees in the Senate have no plans to start investigations of Centcom. Instead, House Democrats and Senate Republicans plan to wait for the results of the inspector general’s probe, congressional staffers said.

Obama administration officials have privately tried to downplay the allegations, saying that they appear to boil down to a clash of personalities operating in a high-pressure atmosphere at the military’s most powerful command. In any case, the officials insist that the president receives unvarnished intelligence and that whatever has occurred at Centcom would not have affected the flow of information to the White House from the country’s spy agencies.

But current and former analysts from the country’s spy agencies are sensitive to any hint of tainted intelligence reporting. The legacy of flawed and politicized intelligence surrounding the invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago led to soul-searching at the spy agencies and reforms designed to ensure that dissenting views were given more prominence.

The senior DIA analyst who blew the whistle at Centcom, Hooker, has been following events in Iraq since the 1990s and has not shied away from challenging authority in the past. In 2005, in a research article for a Washington think tank, Hooker publicly clashed with the Bush administration over what he called its amateurish and unrealistic” invasion plans for Iraq.

There is a long history of disagreement and tension between the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, with “can-do” uniformed officers more inclined to emphasize positive signs and intelligence analysts tending to convey a bleaker outlook.

But the allegations about Centcom suggest that senior officers may have crossed a boundary beyond the customary tension between the military and spy agencies, the former DIA official said.

“If the analysts were told to take this line out, that’s a huge problem. That would be unacceptable,” the ex-official said.

One former intelligence analyst who spent several years focused on Afghanistan and who served multiple tours there said there was a constant friction between military commanders and the DIA analysts, reflecting different training and mindsets. But he said he never saw evidence of outright manipulation of intelligence reports by Centcom.

“I don’t want to say it’s malfeasance. But it’s true there’s cultural tension,” said the retired analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s not like they’re fabricating information. But it’s how they assess what’s going on.”

Military officers are often in the difficult position of having to defend the performance of Afghan security forces, while intelligence analysts are more ready to point to the weaknesses and shortcomings of the Kabul government’s army, he said.

And the officers overseeing the intelligence analysts are keen to find information that shows that their mission objectives are being fulfilled, he said.

“If you have an assessment that undermines the commander’s objectives, that’s not going to go well for that J2,” said the former analyst, referring to the designation for a military intelligence chief.

The current clash at Centcom is aggravated by strong passions developed by analysts who have spent years studying a particular region and who have deployed alongside troops in the field, he said.

“These are not just guys sitting in cubicles who have never been there,” he said.

FP reporter Elias Groll contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images