The Entire Profession Of Intelligence Is Nervous About Allegations That Could Mean The Top Brass At A Combatant Command Violated The Sacrosanct Professional Code Of Intelligence — But, Is This A Much Bigger Problem That Goes Well Beyond USCENTCOM?
David Shedd, a long-time, career intelligence community professional has an article on the DefenseOne website (September 21, 2015) offering his observations and concerns regarding reports that intelligence analysis on the Islamic State may have been ‘doctored’ by senior officials at USCENTCOM. “The entire intelligence profession is nervous,” Mr. Shedd writes, and “there is no more serious charge than claiming somebody altered their work…and, their assessments. It goes to the very core of their function: the integrity of their work as it reaches top-level customers.”
The allegations are serious. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts allege that USCENTCOM higher ups, “intentionally altered their analysis to inflate the assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces’ capabilities; and, downplay the growing threats and capabilities of the Islamic State.” As Mr. Shedd correctly observes, “intelligence analysts exist to provide unbiased, unvarnished assessments to decision-makers. Those assessments must be free to go wherever facts and reason dictates – even if it means going against the grain of a particular political narrative. Such independence,’ Mr. Shedd argues, “is the currency of the [intelligence] analytical realm.” Indeed, Mr. Shedd notes that “the issue of independence is so critical — it is essential that the analysts’ allegations of suppressed, or altered intelligence assessments be investigated thoroughly, and expeditiously.”
If the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General (IG) [who is investigating the allegations] determines that these allegations have merit, “it would mean that top brass at a combatant command violated the sacrosanct professional code of intelligence — to provide objective analysis, free of political biases and personal agendas. The fact that as many as 50 analysts reportedly signed the complaint filed with the DoD IG — suggests that the problem is not a stand alone case…..but systemic. Signing onto a whistleblowing complaint can easily be a career-ender. The [intelligence] analysts who made that very difficult decision to take this step, must be commended for reporting their concerns about political influence corrupting their work,” Mr. Shedd wrote.
“This is an extremely high-stakes, high-profile case for the U.S. Intelligence Community,” Mr. Shedd added. “The nations intelligence professionals are watching closely to see how this is handled. Punishing these analysts will effectively negate the IG’s process with respect to objectivity. To preserve intelligence as a profession, an analyst’s ability to “speak truth to power,’ must be protected at all costs. If analysts do not feel secure to provide objective analysis – especially if it does not support; or, even contradicts customers’ preferred policies, our nation will not be well served. Many might be tempted –consciously, or unconsciously — to alter their analysis to avoid friction with the end-users of intelligence. Any distortion in analysis has the potential to lead to flawed policy decisions; and in the long-term, flawed policies. On the other hand, decision-makers must be able to count on analysts to bring unbiased best judgments forward to help inform difficult decisions.”
“Let’s be clear,” Mr. Shedd says. “No decision-maker is obligated to accept an analyst’s assessment. The customer can always acknowledge it and move on with their policies and strategy regardless,” as they so often do. “But, alternative analysis should always be welcomed by customers — given the lessons from the intelligence failure concerning the nonexistence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq in 2003 — because it can help them build into their policies room to maneuver, in the event primary analysis turned out to be wrong.”
“Devil’s Advocate [or Team B] reviews, and Red Team [alternate or contrary scenarios], Exercises are other options to challenge the majority view on analysis. These analytic approaches take courage [and have to have top-level buy-in and support]; but, they can also reassure policy and military customers that alternative views [outcomes] have been considered. By challenging their own policy assumptions, alternative perspectives can be useful for those customers.”
Mr. Shedd concludes, “only when [intelligence] analysts have a sense of security; and, no fear of manipulation — or worse, adverse action — wl they fully express well-grounded hypothesis and analytic lines that deviate from established views and judgments. Without that assurance, they are seriously hampered in performing their professional duty to obtain and report the truth as they see it.”
The Intelligence Community Cannot Warn, Or Do Anything When Powerfully Motivated Senior Leaders Find The Distortions More Attractive Than Dealing With Reality
I can think of no more destructive climate — if true — for an intelligence analyst than what was taking place at USCENTCOM. Apparently, intelligence analysts were ‘calling it as they saw it,’ but — the senior leaders at the command did not want to hear the message. Instead of encouraging intelligence analysts to take ‘risks’ and stretch their analytical thinking — senior leaders cultivated an atmosphere of compliance with a belief, or outcome that they wanted to see…..rather than what their analysts were seeing, and reading. A very destructive and cancerous construct.
When I was fortunate enough to attend war college at Ft. McNair in Washington D.C. in the mid-90’s, one of my favorite courses was “The Great Captains.” We studied great captains throughout history — one’s that were truly great and made it to the top of the heap — and those who failed, or fell short. Other than modern-day ethics, two major reasons for failure were: being so tyrannical that no one brought them bad news; and, the others — surrounding themselves with sycophants, who reinforced what the leader believed. Both were fatally destructive and more often than not — led to a nasty strategic surprise by their adversary.
And, the senior leadership is also guilty of ignoring what the intelligence is saying — if it doesn’t fit their view and understanding of the issue at hand. Union General George McClellan accepted at face value — greatly inflated estimates of the Confederate opposition he faced at any given time — provided by the Pinkerton Detective Agency — because he believed that the Confederate Army was almost always much larger than it really was. More recently of course, the POTUS and the White House blamed an anti-Muslim video for the Benghazi terror attack — even though intelligence assessments quickly concluded otherwise.
This move in going to the Inspector General with their complaints, will no doubt force some change down at the USCENTCOM intelligence headquarters; and, especially in the way the command encourages intelligence analysts to ‘tell it like it is, warts and all.’ But, the fact that these analysts had to go to the Inspector General in the first place — is not a healthy maneuver; and, is not cost-free. Anytime you have ‘shooting inside the tent,’ and, then air one’s dirty laundry in a very public fashion — there are going to be consequences — some good, some bad. No doubt, the atmosphere in the aftermath of the public disclosure of these allegations — is still somewhat toxic and damaged at the Command; and, some innocent, well-respected professionals both inside and outside of the intelligence division at USCENTCOM will have their careers potentially fatally damaged, or a least wounded and significantly altered — no matter how much everyone in leadership positions promise no reprisals. And, the entire future of the intelligence entities at all the commands could be in for significant turmoil — in the aftermath of this investigation. Finally, it will take some thoughtful , forceful, and sustained leadership, and time to heal — before the intelligence cadre at USCENTCOM can really feel things are back to normal.
The Intelligence Community can warn the senior national security leadership — as at least the Defense Intelligence Agency did with respect to Iraq and the Islamic State [both recently retired Director LTG. Michael Flynn, and now DIA’s new Director, LTG. Vince Stewart] . – when it thinks some faulty and wishful thinking may be diverging from what their intelligence analysis is saying. But, fundamentally, the Intelligence Community cannot do anything when powerfully motivated senior leaders find the distortions more attractive than dealing with reality.
I wonder of this toxic intelligence atmosphere isn’t more widespread than just USCENTCOM. It may well be happening at other commands; and, at the national level as well. This may be a much bigger problem than is currently understood at this time. V/R, RCP