In some cases, analysts also were urged to state that killing particular ISIS leaders and key officials would diminish the group and lead to its collapse. Many analysts, however, didn’t believe that simply taking out top ISIS leaders would have an enduring effect on overall operations.
“There was the reality on the ground but it was not as rosy as [the leadership] wanted it to be,” a defense official familiar with the complaint told The Daily Beast. “The challenge was assessing whether the glass was half empty, not half full.”
Some analysts have also complained that they felt “bullied” into reaching conclusions favored by their bosses, two separate sources familiar with analysts’ complaints said. The written and verbal pressure created a climate at CENTCOM in which analysts felt they had to self-censor some of their reports.
Some of the analysts have also accused their bosses of changing the reports in order to appeal to what they perceived as the Obama administration’s official line that the anti-ISIS campaign was making progress and would eventually end with the group’s destruction.
Lawmakers and even presidential candidates seized on the allegations of politicizing intelligence as the White House tried to distance itself from the very strategy it has been pursuing.
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin came under withering bipartisan criticism on Wednesday when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that after spending at least $43 million over a 10-month period, the U.S. had trained only nine fighters to confront ISIS in Syria.
Senators were dumbfounded that the nearly year-long effort had produced such paltry results, calling it “a joke” and “an abject failure.”
Asked whether he had ever ordered changes to intelligence reports, Austin replied, “Absolutely not.”
The Obama administration is now considering modifying the Syrian train-and-equip program, while the White House attempts to portray the president as having always been skeptical of it.
“There was the reality on the ground but it was not as rosy as [the leadership] wanted it to be. The challenge was assessing whether the glass was half empty, not half full.”
Meanwhile, Pentagon investigators are examining the back-and-forth between the intelligence bosses at CENTCOM and the analysts, which created a paper trail. Favorable reports had fewer comments written on them, and requests that were more critical showed heavy questioning, the two officials said.
The altering of intelligence led to reports that overstated the damage that U.S. strikes had on specific ISIS targets. For instance, strikes on oil refineries and equipment were said to have done more damage to the group’s financing of operations through illicit oil sales than the analysts believed. Also, strikes on military equipment were said to have set back the group’s ability to wage combat operations, when the analysts believed that wasn’t always the case.
The altered reports made ISIS seem financially weakened and less capable of launching attacks, the analysts allege.