The debate over President Obama’s strategy to defeat and degrade ISIS was rocked last September after more than 50 U.S. intelligence analysts working with the U.S. Central Command filed complaints with the Pentagon inspector general that their analysis was manipulated by senior officials to downplay the threat from ISIS and the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaeda branch in Syria). The analysts claimed their management altered their assessments to bolster the Obama administration’s claim that the U.S. was making progress in defeating these Islamist terrorist groups.
The report of this alleged politicization of analysis sparked outraged last fall since it surfaced amid numerous indications that the Obama administration’s strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS had failed, including Russia beginning airstrikes in Syria, the cancellation of President Obama’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebel fighters, and the deadly ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris.
Although the complaints by the CENTCOM analysts are serious and merit an investigation, this story may well be the tip of the iceberg; I believe there is a broad pattern of distorting intelligence analyses to support Obama-administration policy. The real question is why are we not hearing from more whistleblowers.
The Muslim Brotherhood as “Largely Secular”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, for instance, was accused of politicizing intelligence analysis in February 2011 when he said, during a congressional hearing: “The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ is an umbrella term for a variety of movements – in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al-Qaeda as a perversion of Islam.”
Many members of Congress were outraged by this statement, which Clapper later had to walk back. But Clapper was speaking from prepared remarks that conveyed the consensus views of the U.S. intelligence community. Why did no intelligence analysts come forward to allege that the intelligence community was playing down the threat from the Muslim Brotherhood?
The CIA’s official comments on the September 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks are another example of deliberately skewed talking points. Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee accused acting CIA director Michael Morell of doctoring his statements to promote the Obama administration’s line that the Benghazi attacks had nothing to do with terrorism. Committee Republicans also accused Morell of lying to Congress about his actions. Given this strong criticism of Morell, why did no CIA whistleblowers come forward about this affair?
The most disturbing example of politicized intelligence analysis during this administration concerns the Iranian nuclear program. I have witnessed several instances of this, but two stick out in my mind.
Intelligence on Iran
Just before a hearing on the Iranian nuclear program, in 2009 to the House Intelligence Committee (where I was serving as a staff member), one of the CIA witnesses took me aside to lecture me on my disagreement with the CIA’s analysis. This official, who headed the CIA’s Iran Issue office, demanded that I stop disputing the agency’s analysis of the Iranian nuclear program. She also told me that as a former CIA analyst, I should be supporting the agency’s analysis.
I responded by telling this agency official that I thought the CIA’s analysis of Iran’s nuclear program was dead wrong and politicized, and that I had a responsibility to say this to the committee members. I also said that while I no longer worked for CIA and therefore was not obligated to support the agency’s take on Iran, I was worried about what kind of pressure CIA management must be putting on current analysts to stick to an analytic corporate line if it was pressuring former analysts such as myself to do so.
The second striking example of blatant distortion I witnessed was during an August 2015 unclassified presentation at CIA headquarters by a senior official who works in the agency’s nonproliferation-analysis office. The official began his remarks by saying he and his office took no position on the nuclear deal with Iran, but he proceeded to give a 25-minute talk that sounded as if it was drawn from White House talking points. There was no mention of criticism of the Iran deal, the secret side deals, or how sanctions relief could be used to fund terrorism.
This presentation also included misleading and technically inaccurate statements previously made by White House and State Department officials on uranium enrichment and plutonium production; no arms-control expert should have given voice to these errors. Three other former CIA arms-control analysts who attended this talk agreed with me that it was a one-sided and extremely biased presentation. One of these former analysts was quite angry about the talk and accused the CIA official of crossing the line by promoting policy — a cardinal sin for intelligence analysts.
This presentation was consistent with other reports I heard from intelligence and congressional sources that the Obama administration used the U.S. intelligence community to promote the nuclear agreement with Iran. Given the sharp divisions over the Iran deal in Washington, why have we not heard about complaints to inspectors general about this politicization of intelligence?
I can cite many other examples of politicized intelligence analysis during the Obama administration, including the intelligence community’s altering of terrorism terminology to conform to the administration’s agenda. Analysts must now use the term “home-grown violent extremists,” for example, instead of “home-grown terrorists.” Intelligence agencies never use the terms “radical Islam” or “Islamist.” When referring to ISIS terrorists in Syria, the intelligence community’s 2015 worldwide threat report repeatedly refers to them as “Sunni violent extremists.”
This kind of obvious manipulation for political advantage should have led large numbers of intelligence analysts to complain about politicization. Why has this not occurred?
There are at least three reasons for the relative dearth of whistleblowing complaints by intelligence analysts during this administration. They point to political and systemic problems in the U.S. intelligence community that the next president must address.
Why no Whistleblowers?
First, it’s instructive that it is defense intelligence analysts — probably mostly from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) — who recently lodged complaints of politicization and leaked them to the press; DIA has a history of resisting the consensus-based approach to intelligence analysis that has dominated the U.S. intelligence community in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Former DIA director General Michael Flynn has been clear that he thinks intelligence analysis of terrorism has been distorted for political purposes, and he recently said that DIA analysis of extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa has “typically been more hard hitting” and has not tried to paint a rosy picture. Flynn reportedly was forced to retire in 2014 because he refused to go along with intelligence-analysis groupthink and other efforts to politicize intelligence.
Second, the problem of liberal bias among U.S. intelligence analysts goes back many years. John Ranelagh documented this in his authoritative 1986 book The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA. In this, he wrote that CIA Vietnam analysts during the Vietnam War “especially wanted to maintain their image with academia, where they one day might seek future jobs.” Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt drew a similar conclusion in a 1995 article, asserting that U.S. intelligence analysts “who have any intellectual pretensions do not wish to be seen as ‘Neanderthal’ or ‘out of it’ by those in the much more prestigious realms of academia or the mainstream, national-level media.” Shulsky and Schmitt concluded that “this tends to reinforce a tendency toward the ‘conventional wisdom,'” and that “it is distressing how often highly classified assessments of political issues closely resemble op-ed pieces.”
These observations by Ranelagh, Shulsky, and Schmitt are important because they help explain why intelligence officers sometimes try to undermine Republican administrations but never try to undermine Democratic presidents. The Wall Street Journal famously threw the limelight on CIA officers who were turning against a Republican president in a September 29, 2004, editorial— “The CIA’s Insurgency”— that described how a small number of agency officers resisted the Bush administration’s anti-terror policy and tried to prevent President Bush’s reelection.
The third reason we see few whistleblowers is that—as I know from 19 years’ experience as a CIA analyst and from CIA sources—agency management sometimes pressures analysts to support analytic corporate lines, especially on controversial matters and issues related to presidential policy. Analysts who promote the corporate line get promotions, bonuses, and better assignments. Analysts who don’t are sidelined and can fare much worse.
The bottom line is that analysts’ recent complaints about politicization are a symptom of a much larger problem. The next president needs to take steps to ensure that intelligence is objective and nonpolitical. This should include appointing the best possible managers from outside government to top intelligence jobs to take on the intelligence culture, demand accountability, and reward analysts for challenging conventional wisdom. This will not be easy, as CIA director Porter Goss learned when he attempted such reform efforts, only to face a public onslaught against him by agency officers. Goss failed because the Bush White House did not back him up. The next president must do better.
A Path for the Future
The CIA should return to Director William Casey’s model of “competitive analysis” and jettison the current practice of consensus analysis by committee. “Red Team” analysis (analyses of alternative scenarios) also needs to be expanded and its products widely disseminated. We also must find better avenues for intelligence whistleblowers so they can raise their concerns without fear of retaliation.
We should also do away with, or drastically cut back, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). In attempting to coordinate all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, DNI has added a thick layer of bureaucracy that only dumbs down intelligence. The Wall Street Journal made a similar point in a September 18, 2015 editorial:
The general intelligence practice is to produce “estimates” that amount to the lowest-common denominator of agreement among more than a dozen separate intelligence agencies. That these estimates are overseen by a Director of National Intelligence who is close to the president often serves to sanitize them further—another reason we feel vindicated for opposing the Bush administration when it created the DNI in the wake of 9/11.
The 9/11 Commission cited a lack of imagination as a reason intelligence agencies failed to produce analysis that could have prevented the terrorist attacks that day. I fear we are further from fixing this problem than we were in 2001. Over the last seven years, we’ve seen a sharp increase in politicized, consensus-based, and unimaginative intelligence analysis written to promote Obama foreign-policy objectives. The next president must understand that objective, “outside the box” intelligence analysis is crucial to protecting our nation from new and evolving national-security threats, and she or he must exercise the leadership to ensure that America’s intelligence community starts producing it.
Fred Fleitz is Senior Vice President for Policy and Programs with the Center for Security Policy. This article was reviewed and cleared for classification reasons by the CIA Prepublication Review Board.