The Pentagon is investigating accusations from analysts that supervisors revised conclusions to mask some of the U.S. military’s failures in training Iraqi troops and beating back the Islamic State.
WASHINGTON — When Islamic State group fighters overran a string of Iraqi cities last year, analysts at U.S. Central Command wrote classified assessments for military-intelligence officials and policymakers that documented the humiliating retreat of the Iraqi army. But before the assessments were final, former intelligence officials said, the analysts’ superiors made significant changes.
In the revised documents, the Iraqi army had not retreated. The soldiers had simply “redeployed.”
Such changes are at the heart of an expanding internal Pentagon investigation of CENTCOM, as Central Command is known, where analysts say supervisors revised conclusions to mask some of the U.S. military’s failures in training Iraqi troops and in beating back the Islamic State group. The analysts say supervisors were particularly eager to paint a more optimistic picture of America’s role in the conflict than was warranted.
In recent weeks, the Pentagon inspector general seized a large quantity of emails and documents from military servers as it examines the claims, and has added more investigators to the inquiry.
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The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris were a deadly demonstration that the Islamic State, once a group of militants focused on seizing territory in Iraq and Syria, has broadened its focus to attack the West. The electronic files seized in the Pentagon investigation tell the story of the group’s rise, as seen through the eyes of Central Command, which oversees military operations across the Middle East.
The exact content of those documents is unclear and may not become public because so much of the information is classified.
But military officials have told Congress some of those emails and documents may have been deleted before they had to be turned over to investigators, according to a senior congressional official, who requested anonymity. Current and former officials have separately made similar claims, on condition of anonymity, to The New York Times.
Although lawmakers are demanding answers about those claims, it is not clear the inspector general has been able to verify them. A spokeswoman for the inspector general declined to comment.
Staff members at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence are also poring over years of Central Command intelligence reports and comparing them to assessments from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others. The committee is not just examining reports about Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State group, but also those about Afghanistan and other areas under Central Command’s purview.
The insurrection inside Central Command is an important chapter in the story of how the United States responded to the growing threat from the Islamic State group. During the summer, a group of Central Command analysts took concerns about their superiors to the inspector general, saying they had evidence senior officials had changed intelligence assessments to overstate the progress of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
The analysts said problems in Iraq were rooted in deep political and religious divides that could not easily be solved with a military campaign, current and former officials have said. Yet Central Command’s official posture remained generally upbeat.
It is not clear whether the Central Command assessments significantly changed the Obama administration’s views about ISIS. While Central Command was largely positive about U.S. gains, other agencies have been more pessimistic. The Obama administration has generally been measured in its assessments.
But President Obama and senior intelligence officials have acknowledged that the Islamic State group’s rapid emergence caught them by surprise. At the least, the prospect that senior officials intentionally skewed intelligence conclusions has raised questions about how much Obama, Congress and the public can believe the military’s assessments.
Those questions have taken on a new urgency since the Paris attacks, which signaled a new determination by ISIS to carry out terrorist attacks beyond the territory in Iraq and Syria it has declared its “caliphate.” Pressure has grown on the Obama administration to articulate a more muscular strategy for dismantling the group, and a chorus of Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates has called for a U.S. ground campaign in Syria.
Senior lawmakers have begun their own inquiries into the military’s intelligence apparatus. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said his committee was examining intelligence assessments from Central Command and other military commands to see if there was a systemic problem of dissenting voices being muffled by senior military commanders.
“Any time there is an allegation that intelligence is being shaved in a certain way, or distorted in a certain way, that’s a cause for serious concern,” he said.
Thornberry said that Congress has to be careful not to impede the progress of the inspector general’s investigators, but that lawmakers “also have a job to do.”
Foreign Policy magazine reported Thursday that a group of Republican lawmakers will be focusing on whether Central Command also skewed intelligence assessments about Afghanistan.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has been eager to expand his panel’s inquiry into the Central Command assessments. He is planning to send a letter to the inspector general on Monday asking if emails and documents relevant to the investigation have indeed been deleted. He is also asking for copies of any deleted materials that investigators might be able to retrieve from Central Command servers.
For the moment, Nunes is making the request without the support of his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff of California. Schiff said questions about skewed intelligence needed to be taken “very seriously,” but the inspector general should be allowed to finish the inquiry before the House Intelligence Committee considered expanding its investigation.
The committee has asked the Pentagon for permission to interview officials, including the two most senior intelligence officers at Central Command, Maj. Gen. Steven Grove and his civilian deputy, Gregory Ryckman. The request was denied by Pentagon officials, citing the ongoing internal investigation.
That investigation was prompted by complaints in the summer from Central Command’s longtime Iraq experts, led by Gregory Hooker, senior Iraq analyst. In some ways, the team’s criticisms mirror those of a decade ago, when Hooker wrote a research paper saying the Bush administration, over many analysts’ objections, advocated a small force in Iraq and spent little time planning for what would follow the invasion.
Lawmakers originally said the Central Command investigation would be completed in weeks. But Pentagon investigators have found the work painstaking and it could span months. In addition to determining whether changes were made to intelligence reports — and if so, who ordered them — the investigators are studying reports from other intelligence agencies produced at the time to determine what was occurring in Iraq and Syria when the reports were written.
Col. Patrick Ryder, a Central Command spokesman, said the command welcomed the inspector general’s oversight and would respond to requests from Congress for information. He also said Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Central Command commander, would “take appropriate action once the investigation results have been received and reviewed.”