Accusations of altered US military intelligence have come from the center of the Pentagon agency covering security interests in the Middle East, according to a report in The New York Times.
The Times identified one of the intelligence analysts who has called reports on the war against ISIS into question as Gregory Hooker, a top Iraq analyst at US Central Command (Centcom) who has more than two decades of experience in his job.
“Interviews with more than a dozen current and former intelligence officials place the dispute directly at the heart of Central Command, with Mr. Hooker and his team in a fight over what Americans should believe about the war,” Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo wrote in the Times.
The Pentagon is investigating allegations that top military officials have pressured intelligence analysts into conforming their reports to a more positive narrative of the fight against the terror group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State).
More than 50 intelligence analysts at Centcom have supported a formal complaint sent to the Defence Department, and Hooker is reportedly at the helm of that group.
“This core group of Iraq analysts have been doing this for a long time,” Stephen Robb, a retired Marine colonel and a former head of the Centcom Joint Intelligence Center, told the Times.
“If they say there’s smoke, start looking for a firehouse.”
Current and former Centcom officials told the Times that analysts’ complaints center around the two most senior intelligence officers at Centcom, Maj. Gen. Steven Grove and his civilian deputy, Gregory Ryckman.
There are now multiple investigations into the Centcom allegations, according to Bloomberg.
Analyst complaints started soon after the US started bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, according to the Times. Hooker’s team reportedly found that airstrikes on ISIS-controlled oil refineries weren’t significantly hurting the group’s revenues from oil because ISIS had figured out how to build makeshift refineries.
Sources who spoke to the Times also expanded on accusations that negative assessments required more sourcing than positive reports. Senior Centcom officials reportedly told analysts to avoid using “pessimistic phrases that they said were more likely to get attention,” the Times noted. Sources said that in some cases, conclusions to reports were changed completely.
There were reportedly repercussions for going against senior Centcom officials. When Hooker’s boss, William Rizzio, met with Grove and Ryckman about the analysts’ concerns, he was reportedly punished for siding with them. He was reassigned, but later got his previous job back.
Problems like these at Centcom reportedly date as far back as the Iraq war.
William Kotel, who has worked at Centcom, told the Washington Examiner this week that since the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, reports on terrorism in Iraq have been “grossly thrown to the side” in favour of more positive reports.
“They have spent more money and time trying to push down this intelligence … than they have actually spending time and effort on real security,” Kotel told the Examiner.
Kotel told the Examiner that he was forced out of Centcom after raising concerns about “missing pieces” in intelligence reports, which he said were toned down to seem more positive. In one instance, Kotel’s superiors told him to exclude information about an Iraqi target that stole US money from the Central Bank of Iraq, according to the Examiner.
He also said that warnings about terror attacks in Iraq had to be “routed through a maze of Pentagon channels, a process that could take weeks, instead of communicated directly with military units in harm’s way.”
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of Centcom, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week to update members on the US-led fight against ISIS. He was asked to address the allegations surrounding manipulated intelligence reports and said “it would be premature and inappropriate for me to discuss this matter” because of the ongoing investigation.
Austin did point out, however, that Centcom reports did not go directly to the president and that Centcom had a wide variety of sources that provide its intelligence analysis, according to NPR.
A Centcom spokesman told Business Insider earlier this month that it welcomed the Pentagon inspector general’s investigation.
“The IG has a responsibility to investigate all allegations made, and we welcome and support their independent oversight,” the spokesman said. “While we cannot comment on the specific investigation cited in the article, we can speak to the process. The Intelligence Community routinely provides a wide range of subjective assessments related to the current security environment.
“These products and the analysis that they present are absolutely vital to our efforts, particularly given the incredibly complex nature of the multifront fights that are ongoing now in Iraq and Syria. Senior civilian and military leadership consider these assessments during planning and decision-making, along with information gained from various other sources, to include the insights provided by commanders on the ground and other key advisors, intelligence collection assets, and previous experience. The multisource nature of the assessment process purposely guards against any single report or opinion unduly influencing leaders and decision-makers.”
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