CENTCOM manipulated Islamic State intelligence, task force says

Dozens of analysts in Central Command cited a “toxic” leadership environment under former commander Gen. Lloyd Austin III, left, who retired from military service in April.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — U.S. Central Command manipulated intelligence on the Islamic State group to provide an overly positive impression of progress in the war, a joint House task force said Thursday.

An interim report by the task force found Central Command senior leaders signed off on intelligence reports on Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015 that were routinely more positive than ones produced by other agencies, and said that practice might have spawned policies that put U.S. troops in danger.

Dozens of analysts in the command cited a “toxic” leadership environment under former commander Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who retired from military service in April.

The findings come after analyst whistleblowers made claims last year of widespread massaging of war intelligence at the command and a recent House survey of its analysts found 40 percent felt somebody had attempted to distort or suppress their findings despite persuasive evidence.

The House investigation remains ongoing, according to the task force, which included members of the Armed Services Committee, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Appropriations Committee. The Defense Department Inspector General is also probing the allegations, though it has not issued any findings yet.

“The leadership failures at CENTCOM reach to the very top of the organization,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., a member of the task force with the Appropriations Committee. “I hope that the new CENTCOM commander and the new director of intelligence can turn things around quickly.”

Gen. Joseph Votel took over the command this year after leading U.S. Special Operations Command, and Maj. Gen. Mark Quantock was named intelligence director in March.

Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a command spokesman, said Central Command appreciates the independent oversight by the House and is reviewing the task force findings, but declined further comment because the congressional and IG investigations are still ongoing.

Last year, a spokesman said former commander Austin looked for “unvarnished” intelligence guidance from staff.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., who serves on the intelligence committee, said the massaging of information gleaned from the war zone was meant to downplay the threat of the Islamic State group.

“That may well have resulted in putting American troops at risk as policymakers relied on this intelligence when formulating policy and allocating resources for the fight,” Pompeo said in a released statement.

However, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, a task force member from the Armed Services Committee who acknowledged accurate analysis is crucial to the war effort, said he was less certain about Central Command’s handling of the information.

“Despite nearly nine months of review, we still do not fully understand the reasons and motivations behind this practice and how often the excluded analyses were proven ultimately to be correct,” said Wenstrup, who is also a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.

The task force report found the command began producing intelligence reports that bucked the judgement of many of its senior analysts after structural and management changes made in mid-2014.

“These products were consistently more optimistic regarding the conduct of U.S. military action than that of the senior analysts,” according to the report.

Central Command was also more optimistic about progress in the war than other parts of the intelligence community, a practice that extended to misleading public statements as well.

“Many CENTCOM press releases, public statements and congressional testimonies were also significantly more positive than actual events,” the report found.

The descent into cooked intelligence happened after the departure of Gen. James Mattis, the commander until 2013 who is also now retired, and his staff of senior officials.

“Survey results provided to the joint task force demonstrated that dozens of analysts viewed the subsequent leadership environment as toxic,” according to the task force report.

The work environment at Central Command slowly began to improve when the IG launched its investigation into manipulated intelligence last year.

“Many issues persisted until the arrival of Army Gen. Joseph Votel and the new head of CENTCOM’s intelligence directorate,” the report found.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten