WASHINGTON -- In little noticed remarks Tuesday morning, the nation's top intelligence official appeared to spread the blame in the unfolding scandal over the U.S. Central Command's alleged botching of intelligence reports on the Islamic State. It may not have been entirely CENTCOM's fault, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested.
"The intelligence assessments from CENTCOM or any other combatant command come to the national level only through the Defense Intelligence Agency," Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "That is the main conduit … [the] evaluator and filter for what flows into the national intelligence arena."
Clapper was responding to a statement from Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who used part of his allotted questioning time to address recent claims that intelligence reports on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, were deliberately slanted. Analysts working out of Central Command allege that they were pressured to soften their assessments in order to make it appear that the U.S. strategy against the extremist group was succeeding.
"As a member of both this committee and the Intelligence Committee, I want to, in the strongest terms possible, impress upon you the importance for all of us to receive absolutely objective and unbiased assessments," Heinrich said.
The Defense Department's inspector general is looking into the claims. Clapper said he would wait until that inquiry was completed before passing judgment.
"It is an almost sacred writ in the intelligence profession never to politicize intelligence. I don't engage in it and I never have, and I don't condone it when it's identified," Clapper stated. “Having said that ... in spite of all the media hyperbole, I think it's best that we all await the outcome of the [inspector general] investigation to determine whether and to what extent there was any politicization of intelligence at CENTCOM."
Brian Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Clapper's remark wasn't meant to suggest that the Defense Intelligence Agency had a hand in the CENTCOM mess.
"[Clapper] is merely describing the process of how military intelligence from combatant commands is integrated into national intelligence products," Hale said.
In a statement provided to HuffPost, Hale went on to detail the process by which intelligence reports are funneled through CENTCOM.
"During routine video conference sessions, the [Director of National Intelligence] engages with the command in the presence of the Joint Staff. All updates provided by the command are strictly limited to tactical developments such as what happened on the ground overnight regarding issues affecting US personnel and allied forces. They are not broad or strategic assessments," Hale said. "None of the combatant commands are permitted to engage directly in the [President’s Daily Briefing] process at all, rather they are funneled through [the Defense Intelligence Agency] to ensure that all substantive deliberations and final contributions are appropriately coordinated."
Clapper's comments at Tuesday's hearing add a new twist to an already tangled narrative. Earlier media stories suggested that the manipulation of intelligence began and ended at CENTCOM, with analysts charging that higher-ups sent their reports back down to the analyst level when they weren't happy with the implications.
The Director of National Intelligence has faced his share of suspicion over the alleged slanting of intelligence. The Guardian reported that Clapper maintained a "highly unusual" degree of contact with the head of CENTCOM's intelligence wing, Army Maj. Gen. Steven Grove -- a relationship that some former officials speculated could have put heavy, if unintended, pressure on the unit to fit its analysis to the policy goals of Clapper's White House bosses.
That's a worrisome possibility less than 20 years after the country's last intelligence fiasco. Wounds are still raw over the Iraq War, when slanted intelligence assessments, driven by Vice President Dick Cheney, suggested that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fostered closer ties with terror groups than he actually did.