WASHINGTON -- News that senior U.S. intelligence officials may have doctored analysis on the Islamic State weighs heavily on Washington. It suggests that President Barack Obama's intelligence apparatus didn't learn from the costly failures of the Bush era.
The Daily Beast reported late Wednesday that more than 50 intelligence professionals have formally complained that their analysis of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and of Syria's al Qaeda branch, al Nusra, was altered by U.S. Central Command higher-ups in order to make the U.S. military campaign to defeat those groups look more successful than it actually was.
For an intelligence community that's still clawing back its credibility after the Iraq War debacle, this is an ominous charge. The analysis of intelligence, by widely held agreement, is supposed to be one of the most objective aspects of America's counterterrorism policy. It shouldn't be slanted to bolster the fight against the Islamic State -- a fight that was justified in part with 13- and 14-year-old military authorizations that were themselves based on faulty intelligence.
The country -- particularly members of Congress, many of whom say they regret enabling the Bush White House's march to war -- hasn't gotten over the earlier failures.
In 2002, Congress cast a vote that still plagues the nation's foreign policy. By a sweeping majority, lawmakers passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq that set the stage for a conflict that would last nearly a decade, cost billions of dollars and take nearly 5,000 U.S. soldiers' lives. At the time of the vote, many Americans were convinced that Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, had a stockpile of armed nuclear weapons and that he was fostering close ties to al Qaeda. Time has revealed those claims to be greatly exaggerated.
So why did Congress authorize a war that wasn't justified? Because lawmakers were shown tainted facts in the form of an October 2002 intelligence assessment.
An analysis from the intelligence community, provided to lawmakers just prior to the AUMF vote, warned of imminent danger from Iraq -- specifically, that Saddam's regime had stockpiled nukes and cultivated deep ties to the terror organization responsible for 9/11.
"The resulting classified National Intelligence Estimate, prepared in just three weeks time, was a rushed and sloppy product forwarded to members of Congress mere days before votes would be taken to authorize the use of military force against Iraq," states a 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Iraq War's intelligence failures. "As the Committee's report highlights, the October 2002 Estimate was hastily cobbled together using stale, fragmentary, and speculative intelligence reports and was replete with factual errors and unsupported judgments."
Produced under then-Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the Intelligence Committee report goes on to detail how unrelentingly warlike statements from senior Bush officials helped slant the analysis.
"It is no coincidence that the analytical errors in the Estimate all broke in one direction," the report says. "The Estimate and related analytical papers assessing Iraqi links to terrorism were produced by the Intelligence Community in a highly-pressurized climate wherein senior Administration officials were making the case for military action against Iraq through public and often definitive pronouncements."
It wasn't a matter of bad intelligence from the field, lawmakers concluded. It was a matter of viable intelligence being spun for political purposes.
"There is no question we all relied on flawed intelligence," said then-Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) when he released the second installment of the Intelligence Committee's report in 2008. "But there is a fundamental difference between relying on incorrect intelligence and deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate."
According to The Daily Beast's reporting, dozens of current analysts fear the same is happening in the fight against the Islamic State. With no clear strategy, no timeline and a failed effort to formally authorize military action, hyping any little signs of success may seem like the only way to justify this war.