Did Centcom Cook the Books in the War Against the Islamic State?

U.S. Central Command’s intel chief is under scrutiny amid allegations that commanders are trying to bury bad news about the war against ISIS.

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He has eluded the public spotlight in his ascent to the top echelons of the U.S. military, quietly honing his skills as an intelligence officer in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars before taking his current high-stakes position — overseeing reports on the fight against the Islamic State.

But now Army Maj. Gen. Steven Grove, director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command, finds himself at the center of high-profile and politically explosive allegations that military leaders pressured analysts to skew intelligence reports about the campaign against the Islamic State in order to bolster tenuous White House claims of progress.

The allegations revolve around how Grove’s team handled intelligence at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, but it remains unclear whether the general — or one of his deputies — is the target of an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general, administration officials said.

Grove has had a successful, by-the-book career path that saw him earn a graduate degree at the Naval War College and serve as commander of a U.S. Army intelligence battalion and a brigade before taking senior assignments in Germany and South Korea, according to an official biography provided by the military. He has served as head of intelligence, or “J2,” for Central Command since June 2014, shortly before the United States launched air raids against the Islamic State that August.

The inspector general’s inquiry was prompted by a complaint from at least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst working under Grove who alleged that assessments were being distorted at Central Command to reflect a rosier picture of the war effort, according to U.S. officials.

Lawmakers from both parties are taking the allegations seriously, partly because of the civilian intelligence analyst’s relatively senior rank, Senate staffers told Foreign Policy.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been informed of the inspector general’s investigation and heard from one of the analysts behind the complaint, aides said. But there are no plans at the moment to hold hearings on the case.

The allegations suggest a toxic climate inside the intelligence team at Central Command and cover a period dating back to June 2014, when Grove took over as director, congressional aides said.

But administration officials, military officers, and congressional staffers said it is too soon to gauge the gravity of the allegations or whether the case will reveal an isolated episode of acrimony or a more far-reaching scandal that calls into question how the White House and the military are conducting and portraying the war.

The allegations involving Central Command’s intelligence reporting suggest a possible politicization of the air war against the Islamic State, which was launched more than a year ago, and coincide with criticism from Republican lawmakers and some analysts that President Barack Obama’s administration has downplayed setbacks and overplayed progress on the battlefield.

The Pentagon confirmed the inspector general’s investigation for the first time Wednesday, after the Daily Beast reported that complaints from two analysts assigned to Central Command reflected the sentiments of dozens of other intelligence officers. The New York Times first broke the news of the investigation in late August.

The allegations represent potential political dynamite for Obama, who has denounced the last White House for its handling of intelligence before the Iraq War. The rich irony has not been lost on the president’s Republican critics, who are watching the case closely.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said he could not discuss any details of the inquiry but said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had instructed his deputies to ensure all intelligence reporting presented a “candid” picture without any attempt to water down assessments.

Carter “has directed the acting undersecretary for intelligence to consult with his leadership, with the combatant commands, to reinforce that message,” Cook said. “Unvarnished, transparent intelligence is what this secretary expects on a daily basis.”

A spokesman for Central Command, Col. Patrick Ryder, said that he could not discuss the investigation and that Grove was unavailable for comment. But he said the command seeks out a broad array of intelligence for military leaders.

The Pentagon inspector general’s office refused to comment on the case.

The Guardian reported late Thursday that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who oversees all of the country’s spy services, is in frequent contact with Grove at Central Command, even though the general ranks much lower in the intelligence hierarchy.

But Clapper’s office dismissed the report, saying there was nothing unusual or inappropriate about the director regularly conferring with Grove and other members of Central Command in videoconferences with top military officers.

“During routine videoconference sessions, the DNI engages with the command in the presence of the Joint Staff,” said Brian Hale, spokesman for the director of national intelligence (DNI).

“All updates provided by the command are strictly limited to tactical developments such as what happened on the ground overnight regarding issues affecting U.S. personnel and allied forces. They are not broad or strategic assessments,” he said.

U.S. spy agencies are particularly sensitive to any allegations of meddling after the debacle surrounding the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Officials under former President George W. Bush were accused of manipulating intelligence about suspected stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction to justify the case for toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — even though United Nations inspectors had no evidence of such munitions.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, told lawmakers in March that “we are making progress” and the Islamic State “is losing this fight.”

Two months later, Islamic State militants recaptured the Iraqi city of Ramadi in a humiliating defeat for Baghdad government troops who were routed despite U.S.-led air power.

Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has accused the White House of refusing to acknowledge the disappointing results of the air campaign in Iraq and Syria. The officer picked to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, infuriated McCain when he said at a hearing in July that the Islamic State was locked “in a stalemate” with U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.

“I don’t know where you’ve been. Obviously ISIS is winning in Iraq,” McCain told the general.

Even if senior officers at Central Command were found to have squelched pessimistic assessments of the campaign, that does not mean that the president or other top officials were prevented from seeing accurate, hard-hitting intelligence reports, former and current officials said.

Information and analysis gathered by the CIA, eavesdropping from the National Security Agency, imagery from spy satellites, and a plethora of other intelligence flows unfettered to the White House, and the U.S. military — including Central Command — does not have the authority to block or revise it, officials said.

“Under the system, there are multiple perspectives provided, and no one single agency has a monopoly on intelligence,” a U.S. official said.

Moreover, some harsh realities about the Islamic State’s potency — including its seizure of territory and its brutal methods — have been widely documented and cannot be refuted by even the most optimistic analyses, officials said.

The intelligence assessed inside Central Command under Grove’s management is forwarded to troops in the field as needed and up to Austin, the command’s top officer, who, in an earlier job, withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Intelligence assessments from Central Command help shape Austin’s decisions and recommendations, but those findings are not typically incorporated into a regular written report delivered to the White House separately from what the CIA provides the president in his daily briefing, officials said.

Defense officials said no one overseeing intelligence at Central Command so far has been suspended or reassigned as a result of the inspector general‘s investigation.

One defense official said Central Command intelligence reports have tended to have a more positive interpretation of events than assessments from analysts under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but that was not necessarily a reflection of any interference or meddling.  

When Foreign Policy asked about the allegations, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s director, Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, declined to comment on the investigation.

But a spokesman, James Kudla, said the Defense Intelligence Agency supports the role of the inspector general and said U.S. intelligence services operate under rules crafted to foster debate so that “the very best analysis is put forward for leaders and warfighters.”

The White House said it is confident that Obama receives untainted, accurate intelligence reports.

“I can tell you that what the president has repeatedly sought from his national security team is the clearest and best assessment of what exactly is happening on the ground,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

“And that’s what the president routinely asks for, and that’s what the president has confidence that he is routinely provided by his national security team.”

FPs Elias Groll and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

Photo credit: U.S. Central Command/Screen grab taken via YouTube

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