Scathing House Intel Report on ISIS Fuels Trump’s Attack
A new report showing the Pentagon exaggerated its battlefield successes gives the GOP nominee fresh ammunition in the political fight over the terror group's rise.
A new congressional investigation has concluded that senior military officials presented an overly positive spin on the progress of the U.S. fight against the Islamic State, but its initial findings stopped short of explicitly charging the Obama administration with cooking the books.
The White House shouldn’t break out the champagne: The findings could still be a lose-lose proposition for both the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton just as Donald Trump appeared to be on the ropes amid plunging poll numbers and sharp attacks from members of his own party.
Trump’s primary attack on Clinton’s national security credentials centers around his accusations that she and the president whom she served deserve blame for the spread — if not the very birth — of the Islamic State. The mogul has stepped up his rhetorical attacks on both Clinton and President Barack Obama in recent days, deriding Obama as the “founder” of the group and labeling Clinton its “co-founder.”
As with so many of Trump’s attacks, it’s a wholly inaccurate claim. The Islamic State grew out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, an extremely violent Islamist group that battled U.S. forces after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, five years before Obama even took office. The president made an early series of remarks downplaying its capabilities, but has since launched an expansive military campaign that officials say has dramatically shrunk the size of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
Still, the new evidence that the U.S. war against the Islamic State may not be going as well as the administration has claimed makes it easier for Trump to accuse Obama of intentionally misrepresenting the facts on the ground or to argue that the president was so incompetent that that he didn’t even realize that he was being misled by his commanders.
Trump has already begun rolling out variants of that line of attack, part of the concerted Republican strategy to persuade voters that Obama bears responsibility both for losing Iraq by prematurely withdrawing American troops and for creating a vacuum that ISIS stepped in to fill. The president, Republicans argue, was also slow to grasp the severity of the new threat as evidenced by his tone-deaf and inaccurate description of the Islamic State as the “JV team” of international terrorism.
Offered a way to back out of the clearly incorrect remarks on Thursday, Trump instead doubled down to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump said. Hewitt pushed back, saying the president is trying to defeat the group, but the New York businessman gave no ground.
“I don’t care,” Trump replied. “He was the founder.”
Now Trump’s efforts to attack Obama’s — and Clinton’s — handling of the Islamic State’s spread are getting a boost from the House report, which could be used as rhetorical ammunition in the GOP push to diminish the counterterrorism gains of the entire administration.
The Republican chairs of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, formed the task force to investigate allegations that the U.S. Central Command, in charge of the war in the Middle East, had manipulated intelligence in 2014 and 2015.
The answer, the House panel concluded, was yes: CENTCOM leaders approved intelligence that “typically provided a more positive depiction of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts than was warranted by facts on the ground and were consistently more positive than analysis produced by other elements of the Intelligence Community.” It also corroborated claims by CENTCOM whistleblowers that “superiors were distorting their products” or pressuring them to do so. The findings were first reported by the Daily Beast.
The House report found no evidence that administration officials implicitly or explicitly pressured senior CENTCOM officials to cook the books, but Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and one of the task force’s leaders, hinted that political motivations might ultimately explain the skewed intel analysis.
The Democratic minority on the House Intelligence Committee, which conducted its own review, agreed with the majority’s conclusions about the faulty assessments but repeatedly emphasized that neither probe found administration involvement.
“We found no evidence of politicization of intelligence in this case,” said the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California. “Nor did we — or the majority — find any evidence that the White House requested to, or in any manner attempted to, have the intelligence analysis conform to any preset or political narrative.”
Trump and his allies haven’t shied away from alleging just such a connection, even though even Republican investigators couldn’t find one.
Kelly Ayotte, a vulnerable Republican senator running for reelection in New Hampshire and one of the Obama administration’s loudest critics, was one of the first to weigh in on Thursday. “A successful strategy to defeat the scourge of radical Islamist terrorism must be based on facts — not rosy assessments manipulated to support a political narrative,” she said.
Still, Trump’s ability to capitalize politically on the Obama administration’s track record in the war against the Islamic State may be complicated by inconvenient realities in his own record, including inaccurate claims that he initially both opposed the Iraq invasion (he supported it) and the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces (he backed that, too).
Photo credit: Joe Raedle / Staff