House Republicans find Centcom produced overly upbeat intelligence on Islamic State

An investigation by House Republicans has found that the U.S. military’s Central Command regularly produced intelligence that distorted the results of the campaign against the Islamic State, suggesting that command leaders shaped analysis in a way that resulted in a more upbeat depiction of the war.

Interim conclusions from a joint panel including Republicans from the House Armed Services, Intelligence and Appropriations committees found that assessments produced by Centcom’s intelligence unit routinely differed during 2014-2015 from the judgments of senior career analysts there. The investigation relied on survey results and interviews with Centcom personnel.

The intelligence reports examined by lawmakers “also consistently described U.S. actions in a more positive light than other assessments from the [intelligence community] and were typically more optimistic than actual events warranted,” the investigation found.

The probe stems from an internal complaint by a civilian intelligence analyst who alleged that intelligence from Centcom, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East, was being improperly distorted. The Pentagon’s inspector general’s office is conducting a separate investigation into the issue.

Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a spokesman for Centcom, said the command had seen the report, but he declined further comment while other investigations were continuing.

According to the panel’s report, a new intelligence director arrived at Centcom only days before the Islamic State overran the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, revealing the extent of the militant group’s strength and the calamitous state of Iraq’s army. That coincided with other changes in the intelligence production process at Centcom that, according to the report, allowed senior officials to make significant changes to analytic conclusions by their subordinates. As that reorganization process took place, according to those interviewed by the panel, analysts were pressured by their superiors to hew their conclusions more closely to reporting coming from the battlefield.

Islamic State fighters parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle in Mosul on June 23, 2014. (AP)

One outcome of that may have been overly rosy depictions of Iraq’s security forces, which the United States and its partners have been working to retrain since their partial collapse during the seizure of Mosul, the report suggested. Many of the changes to Centcom’s intelligence process highlighted in the report have since been abandoned, it found.

According to the Republican lawmakers, public statements from Defense Department leaders were also regularly more upbeat than the intelligence and ground situation warranted. After struggling during the first year of the military campaign in Iraq and Syria, U.S. military leaders now say they have seized the momentum against the Islamic State. Officials have not said exactly when the offensive to recapture Mosul will start, but it could be as early as this fall.

The panel also suggested that Centcom’s analysis of the situation in Iraq and Syria may have shaped policymakers’ understanding of the facts at senior levels of the U.S. government. That allegation was rejected by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, who conducted a separate review that was also released Thursday.

“We found no evidence of politicization of intelligence in this case,” the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), said in a statement. “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.”

The Democratic lawmakers did find, however, that the Centcom process during that period was “overly insular” and failed to sufficiently account for dissenting analysis.

The Republican lawmakers suggested that much of the blame lay on Centcom leaders at that time, saying the intelligence process worked better under commanders who preceded and followed Lloyd Austin III, the general who served as commander from 2013 to 2016. Austin could not be immediately reached for comment.