Sources Detail Skewed Reports On How The U.S. Is Doing Against ISIS

Sep 16, 2015
Originally published on September 18, 2015 1:30 pm

NPR has new details on what investigators are discovering about Pentagon analysis of the battle against ISIS in Iraq.

The Pentagon is looking at whether senior military officials at U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, pressured intelligence analysts into painting a rosy picture of the fight against ISIS. The Defense Department's inspector general is talking to a group of intelligence analysts who are providing evidence and details on how bias crept into their assessments.

One military source who witnessed the skewing of reports and told NPR he was "a victim of them" said that analysts at CENTCOM got the message as they began writing their assessments of events on the ground. If analysts wanted to include a piece of good news regarding the campaign against ISIS or the progress of Iraqi forces, they needed almost no sourcing. But if they wanted to include bad news — such as Iraqi forces retreating — analysts were required to cite three or four sources.

Two military sources familiar with the investigation say that, while they haven't discovered a direct order to cherry-pick intelligence, it was something that evolved because of the way data were handled and produced.

"The bad news didn't just need to be footnoted," one military source, who did not want to be further identified because he is involved with the inquiry, told NPR. "The intelligence data itself had to be attached to the report. It became pretty clear if they wrote something bad, it was likely to be changed. Knowing that bad news on ISIS wasn't welcome meant that, over time, the picture of the fight began being rosier."

A military source described the evolution of one report that came out of CENTCOM's intelligence shop. It was a dispatch on an ISIS attack in Iraq near the Syrian border. The initial CENTCOM report read, "Iraqi forces retreated." It was sent back for reworking, the source said. Eventually that report came to read that the Iraqi forces had not retreated, but instead had reinforced another Iraqi position. The final draft suggested a strategic decision had been made. But that was not what happened, the source said — the Iraqi forces ran. A second source confirmed the account of the change in wording to put the Iraqi forces in a more positive light.

The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had been called to provide a progress report on the fight against ISIS. But he was obliged to address, although obliquely, the Pentagon investigation into CENTCOM first. "There is an ongoing DOD IG investigation looking into allegations concerning the processing of intelligence information by CENTCOM's intelligence directorate," Austin said in his opening remarks. "Because the allegations are currently under investigation ... it would be premature and inappropriate for me to discuss this matter."

All he would say was that the CENTCOM reports, contrary to what had been said in the media, did not go directly to the president, and CENTCOM drew its intelligence analysis from a variety of sources — 1,200 analysts, combat commanders on the ground, and other agencies. Even so, in his testimony, the general seemed to be painting an upbeat picture. "In recent months, Iraq's security forces have experienced some setbacks, and this is to be expected in a fight as complex as this one," said Austin. "But overall the Iraqis continue to make progress."

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, made clear he wasn't swallowing Austin's assessment. "I must say I have been on this committee for 30 years and I have never heard testimony like this," McCain said. "Never."

Just the week before his appearance, McCain told the general, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, had testified that the fight against ISIS was tactically stalemated. "So obviously you and the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have a very different view of what the situation is," McCain said.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next the story gets to the heart of the war against the Islamic State. It's the question of whether top Pentagon officials really know what's going on and whether they want to know. The military relies on intelligence analysts to sift information from the battlefield. Now the Pentagon is investigating whether analysts were pressured to bend their conclusions to make it seem like the war was going better than it really was. Here's NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, was on Capitol Hill yesterday testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: Good morning, Chairman McCain, Senator Reid and distinguished members of the committee.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The general was there to discuss the progress of the fight against ISIS in Iraq, but he had to address something else first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUSTIN: There is an ongoing DOD IG investigation looking into allegations concerning the processing of intelligence information by CENTCOM's intelligence directory.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Central Command is known as CENTCOM.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUSTIN: Because the allegations are currently under investigation, it would be premature and inappropriate for me to discuss this matter.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So he didn't. But according to two sources with direct knowledge of the investigation, while there was never a direct order to skew the intelligence reports, it was something that did happen gradually because of the way the intelligence was handled. One military source, who witnessed the skewing of reports and was a victim of them, said that if analysts wanted to put a piece of good news about the conditions on the ground regarding ISIS or Iraqi forces, they needed almost no sourcing. But if there was bad news, like Iraqi forces retreating, analysts were required to cite three or four sources and not just footnote them. The intelligence data itself had to be attached to the report. That meant that writing a good news report was easy and a bad news one was doubly difficult. That had the effect, the source said, of biasing the intelligence that came out of CENTCOM, making the battle on the ground seem more positive than it was. In his progress report yesterday, General Austin seemed to be painting an upbeat picture, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUSTIN: In recent months, Iraq security forces have experienced some setbacks, and this is to be expected in the early stages of a fight as complex as this one.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And then he added...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUSTIN: But overall, the Iraqis continue to make progress.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Senator John McCain, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made clear that he wasn't swallowing Austin's assessment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MCCAIN: General Austin, Ms. Warmith, I must say, I've been a member of this committee for nearly 30 years, and I have never heard testimony like this, never.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A week earlier, he said, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, had told the committee that the fight against ISIS was tactically stalemated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCAIN: So obviously you and the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have a very different view of what the situation is.

TEMPLE-RASTON: To give an example of how intelligence can be subtly biased, a source described a report of an ISIS attack in Iraq near the Syrian border. The initial CENTCOM report read, Iraqi forces retreated. It was sent back for re-working. Eventually, that report came to read that the Iraqi forces had not retreated but instead had reinforced another Iraqi position. The final draft suggested there was a strategic decision made, but that was not what happened, the source said. The Iraqi forces ran. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.