Trouble is brewing at US Central Command (Centcom), the Pentagon's agency covering security interests in nations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.
According to a report from The Daily Beast, more than 50 intelligence analysts at Centcom have formally complained that reports on the Islamic State and the Nusra Front — Al Qaeda's Syria branch — have been repeatedly altered by senior intelligence officials to fit with the Obama administration's insistence that the US is winning the war against the two militant groups.
Former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell explained on CBS "This Morning" how serious these allegations are.
"One of the central tenants, one of the key aspects of the policy-making process in the United States is that analysts get to say what they think without any interference, without anybody changing it, so this is a very, very serious charge, I think it needs to be fully investigated," Morrell said.
"If there is truth that somebody has been meddling with their analysis, I think somebody needs to lose their job over it and there needs to be full transparency into this because it is so important that analysts be able to say what they really think."
A written complaint was sent in July by two Centcom senior analysts to the Department of Defense Inspector General, an independent agency that provides oversight to the Department of Defense. The complaint was supported by 50 other analysts, according to The Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast published similar allegations last month, citing sources familiar with the terrorism assessments who said senior military and intelligence officials pushed analysts to portray ISIS "as weaker than the analysts believe it actually is" and "paint an overly rosy picture about how well the US-led effort to defeat the group is going." Now it appears that the problem is more widespread than just a few frustrated analysts.
Eleven individuals knowledgeable about the details of the complaint told The Daily Beast that the complaint says crucial parts of intelligence reports were taken out, analysts were subject to an environment in which they did not feel able to give a candid assessment of the situation in Iraq and Syria, and sometimes reports seen as being too negative were sent back to analysts.
(Institute for the Study of War)
Questions remain about why Centcom officials have gone to such lengths to alter reports on the Islamic State — assuming The Daily Beast's report is accurate — when the picture painted by the media, independent analysts, and even some administration officials is convoluted at best and pessimistic at worst.
In late July, the Associated Press reported that assessments by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and others found that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is no weaker than it was when US bombing began in 2014.
"We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," a defense official told the AP.
Meanwhile, John Allen, the retired Marine general coordinating the campaign against ISIS, said bluntly, "ISIS is losing," while speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in late July. At the same forum, FBI director James Comey sent a mixed message by calling ISIS "the threat that we're worrying about in the homeland most of all."
Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst, wrote in Foreign Policy in August that the war against ISIS in Iraq had been "slowing down."
"The best that can be reasonably expected in 2015 is the stabilization of the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah," Knights wrote. "No one even talks about liberating Iraq's second-most populous city, Mosul, anymore.”
Mosul is a major stronghold for ISIS in Iraq that used to be a top priority for US plans to defeat the militants.
"At this rate, the United States will still be in Iraq when US President Barack Obama leaves office — an outcome no one, especially the president, wants," Knights wrote.
Brookings Institution fellow Charles Lister recently wrote a similarly negative assessment of the war on ISIS. Lister said progress could "best be described as a series of loosely linked tactical gains, rather than a significant strategic advance."
"The stated coalition objective is to 'degrade and destroy' IS as a militant organization, but it remains a potent armed force capable of capturing valuable territory and inflicting considerable material damage on its adversaries," Lister wrote.
"IS is clearly a determined enemy," he added, "and poses a potent threat that the current coalition strategy is failing to effectively 'degrade and defeat.'"
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