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Exclusive: Top House Lawmaker Accuses Pentagon of Obstructing Intel Probe
Rep. Devin Nunes says military officials are “slow-rolling” attempts to investigate alleged manipulation of intelligence by U.S. Central Command
A powerful lawmaker is accusing U.S. Central Command and the Defense Department of “slow-rolling” his attempts to investigate the alleged manipulation of intelligence by command officials, who stand accused of tweaking analyst reports to put a positive spin on Washington’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
The head of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), told Foreign Policy that he has experienced months of delays and an overall “lack of cooperation” from Central Command, which has repeatedly cancelled trips for staffers to travel to the command’s Tampa, Florida, headquarters.
At a committee hearing on Thursday with a panel of the nation’s top intelligence officials, Nunes said he had been “made aware” that officials at the command had also deleted emails and files, and “we expect that the Department of Defense will provide these and all other relevant documents to the committee.”
The charges are the most serious publicly lodged by a lawmaker against the military command — which oversees the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan — since reports emerged in August that analysts alleged their work was being altered to show more progress against the Islamic State than had actually been achieved. The analysts accused their higher-ups of changing the assessments to make them more politically palpable to a White House eager to show progress in the fight.
“They’re slow-rolling us on getting the facts,” the lawmaker told FP. “We need to do a lot of interviews, and we need to know what files were deleted because the files that get deleted are the ones they don’t want you to see.”
The skewed intelligence products have a direct impact on decisions taken in Washington over the course of the war against the Islamic State. “The damage has been done,” Nunes said. “For whatever reason, the intelligence has been manipulated, and poor decisions have been made.”
At the hearing, Nunes said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided him with the results of a survey conducted last year of Central Command staffers, which found that more than 40 percent of its analysts are concerned there are flaws in the integrity of the intelligence analyses and with how their work is handled.
“I would consider that unusually high,” Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said. “We’ve already had requests where there’s been a dispute at Centcom where we’ve sent out an ombudsman there to look at the analytic rigor.”
Nunes expressed exasperation that Clapper’s office initially chose not to share the survey results with Congress, even though he and other lawmakers had just launched an investigation into the case.
The lawmaker said that the incessant delays that have derailed plans to meet with Central Command leaders and whistleblowers have been hugely frustrating. “We’ve only been able to get one trip down there,” since last fall, but “we’re trying to get down there and get on the ground and meet with the whistleblowers and the personnel down there to collect evidence.”
“My goal here is to protect the whistleblowers and protect the process” of conducting oversight of the military. “It’s really a major problem for the credibility” of the command, he said, “especially if you look at all of the stall tactics that have been used over the past few months.”
Central Command spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder declined to discuss any specifics of the ongoing investigation but said: “As a matter of Centcom policy, all senior leader emails are kept in storage for record-keeping purposes, so such records cannot be deleted. Centcom continues to cooperate fully with the [Defense Department inspector general’s] investigation.”
In November, FP reported that Nunes was joining the chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to form a task force to investigate the allegations and were including analysts’ reports from Afghanistan.
In his interview with FP, the California lawmaker said the congressional inquiry was launched by the three House committees to get around what he called stalling tactics by Central Command. Officials at Central Command had rebuffed inquiries from each committee separately by arguing that the intelligence committee did not have jurisdiction to question military leaders and that armed service panel members did not have the authority to pose questions to intelligence analysts, he said.
The Pentagon inspector general’s investigation began last year after least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst alleged that assessments were being distorted at Central Command to put a positive spin on the effort against the Islamic State. Other analysts have echoed his concerns.
In the crosshairs of the investigation sits Maj. Gen. Steven Grove, who has been the head of intelligence at Central Command since June 2014.
The analysts have characterized the intelligence shop at Central Command as a highly charged environment since Grove took over as director, congressional aides have said.
The issues date further back than Grove’s tenure, however. Nunes said that lawmakers had become concerned about the handling of intelligence by late 2013 on issues related to Afghanistan and documents captured after the 2011 commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden. “All of these things go back to products that weren’t shared, work that was not done, or sheer putting pressure on analysts in the changing and manipulating of the intel product,” he said.
In discussing the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon has painted a mixed picture of an organization that has lost thousands of fighters and key parts of its self-proclaimed caliphate, including the Iraqi city of Ramadi. At the same time, the Islamic State remains a potent fighting force which retains other major cities in Syria and Iraq and has an expanding presence in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Libya.
Asked why he spoke out at Thursday’s hearing of the nation’s top intelligence officials, Nunes said he had tried to work out disagreements privately with the military but the attempts failed. He said, “this needed to be expressed publicly because the process and the whistleblowers must be protected and because if they’re successful in crushing this investigation, then we’ll never get whistleblowers to come forward again.”
Photo Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images