Here’s something to think about as we commemorate Sept. 11, 2001, an epic intelligence failure that led directly to the worst American defeat since Pearl Harbor.
The current Democratic front-runner in the presidential sweepstakes, described as a liar by many American voters, conceivably faces indictment for mishandling top secret intelligence, the most prized category of all our national secrets. Meanwhile the current Democratic incumbent, undaunted by his infamous description of ISIS as a “junior varsity team,” is insisting that the intelligence analysts most responsible for fighting ISIS cook their books to make it seem as if we’re winning despite inconvenient facts suggesting otherwise.
The Daily Beast, in Wednesday’s exclusive story, reported a breaking scandal from within the ranks of intelligence analysts at the U.S. Central Command, ordinarily a highly secretive organization. “More than 50 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command have formally complained that their reports on ISIS and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials ”
This is hot stuff because intelligence analysts are normally an exceptionally closed-mouth bunch, believing that loose lips still sink ships and cost lives. But at Tampa’s Central Command, that responsibility is taken even more seriously since CENTCOM is the war-fighting organization most responsible for carrying the fight to ISIS. The painstaking assessments of its analysts – about enemy order of battle, areas of concentration and chains of command – are the raw material of the nation’s information-centered kill chain. When vague intelligence “indicators” are correlated with other data, intuition and shrewd comparisons can produce hard “signatures.” Only then are our pilots and Special Forces ordered into direct action, bringing firepower to destroy those often elusive targets.
When you do that kind of thing for a living every day, then your expert evaluation about the success of the fight will naturally command high-level attention – and possibly even controversy as well. If “keep your mouth shut,” is a common instinct among intelligence professionals, then a shared professional culture elevates “getting it right” into a core value. But on those rare occasions when those values come into direct conflict with each other – that is when history is in the making.
According to the Daily Beast, this is apparently the case now – and has been for months. Two central command intelligence analysts – supported by 50 of their colleagues – took the extraordinary step of signing a formal complaint to the department of defense inspector general, literally a life-or-death career move. They charge that their reports were being politicized to portray “the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are.” More specifically, “The analysts have accused senior-level leaders, including the director of intelligence and his deputy in CENTCOM, of changing their analyses to be more in line with the Obama administration’s public contention that the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda is making progress.”
What may be even worse is that the pattern of bureaucratic deception has persisted, what one official described as a “cancer” at the highest levels. Against a backdrop of considerably more optimistic public assessments by President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and a host of multi-starred commanders, the central command analysts began their confrontation back in October.
So what happens when a courageous analyst fulfills his highest professional duty of speaking “truth to power?” As documented by the Daily Beast, the Empire instinctively strikes back: Pessimistic reports are edited to include more happy talk while truly ominous assessments are short-stopped, contradicted or deep-sixed. An already-Darwinian personnel system with promotions slowed by budget-cuts easily reins in the odd maverick with a raised eyebrow or the chilling question, “Are you really giving the boss what he expects here?” Sometimes an emergency call to HR is made and early retirement options pointedly made clear.
But is any of that the fault of Barack Obama? Designated apologists like White House spokesman Josh Ernest will reflexively deny any such culpability. But any intelligence officer worth his or her salt knows that generals and presidents get precisely the kind of intelligence they deserve. Decision-making in the hierarchy of the U.S. government is a tightly closed loop that is exquisitely sensitive to every nuance, every shading of encouragement or discouragement. If the boss doesn’t demand the kind of fearless intelligence that confirms or denies his most cherished preferences, then the entire weight of the federal bureaucracy instinctively closes ranks around him.
Where bad news is cut off, only catastrophe can enter, either a 9/11 or a Pearl Harbor. As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling classically observed, surprise at Pearl Harbor was “sudden, concentrated and dramatic. The failure, however, was cumulative, widespread and rather drearily familiar.” Just like today, from CENTCOM to the West Wing.
A version of this piece previously appeared on Washington Times