Guest post by Joshua Rovner
This week the New York Times reported on complaints that the military is altering intelligence estimates in the war against ISIS. According to the Times, civilian analysts in the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claim that officials in U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) have been “improperly reworking” their conclusions in order to present a picture of optimism and progress. While the report is does not contain much detail, critics have already concluded that it is a clear case of politicization. Administration supporters are whitewashing intelligence, they say, rather than face the fact that the administration’s strategy is failing.
Politicization has serious consequences. It skews current intelligence reports and inhibits later reassessment. Episodes of politicization also poison relations between policymakers and intelligence agencies for years after the fact, as happened after a major intelligence-policy breakdown during the Vietnam War. So the claim about doctoring intelligence on ISIS is a serious allegation. Is it true?
At first glance the case does resemble the so-called “order of battle” affair in Vietnam, when the Johnson administration pressured intelligence officials to go along with optimistic military estimates about the size of the enemy. Then as now, the controversy surrounded the knotty question of trying to count insurgents in an ongoing war. And much like current events, civilian intelligence officials accused the military of fudging the numbers to support the hope that a strategy of attrition would slowly destroy the enemy’s ability to resist.
But there are limits to the analogy. The Vietnam controversy was particularly intense because White House rhetoric seemed incongruous with events in the battlefield. Indeed, the Johnson administration launched an intensive public relations campaign to demonstrate that its strategy of attrition was succeeding the same year that congressional and public opinion swung against the war. When it learned that CIA estimates called that strategy into question, administration officials leaned on the intelligence community to go along with military estimates.
While there is certainly dissatisfaction with the war against ISIS, it is hardly dominating the headlines. This is not surprising, given that no Americans have died from enemy fire since the air campaign began last summer. And while the U.S. goal in Vietnam was straightforward – the preservation of a non-communist government in Saigon – the same cannot be said about the war today. President Obama’s stated goal is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS by killing its fighters and starving the group of resources, but he has also argued that victory requires the emergence of a stable and inclusive government in Iraq and a regime change in Syria. It is unclear that the administration has the desire to seriously pursue these goals, given the president’s reluctance to commit ground troops to either country.
What do these differences have to do with politicized intelligence? My research finds that leaders are more likely to manipulate estimates when they make strong policy commitments in the face of substantial domestic opposition. In these circumstances, as was the case in the Vietnam era, they have incentives to enlist intelligence to help win domestic political battles. But when policy commitments are uncertain and opposition is weak or unfocused, they have less need to lean on intelligence. That may be why there is no evidence that the administration is involved in the alleged dispute between DIA and CENTCOM.
So if this not a clear case of top-down politicization, what is it? While we can only speculate given the lack of detail in the Times piece, the story appears similar to a recent controversy over intelligence in Afghanistan. In 2011, then-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus tried to modify the assessment process to give more weight to the opinions of troops in the fight. The argument was that soldiers had the benefit of more current information, which meant that they were able to see signs of progress that were invisible to CIA analysts in Langley. At the time, Gen. Petraeus was cautiously optimistic that the surge in Afghanistan had produced “fragile but reversible” gains against the Taliban. The CIA was apparently less sanguine, and some analysts suspected that his proposal was an unsubtle way of forcing them to support his view.
A similar fight among bureaucracies might be going on today. Perhaps officials are letting their policy preferences affect their conclusions, even to the point of violating standard procedures for writing and editing intelligence reports. Such mischief could come from either direction. CENTCOM might be manipulating draft reports to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of progress in the war, as critics suspect. But it is also possible that DIA analysts are exaggerating their pessimism to feed the narrative that ISIS is winning and that the United States must do much more.
Of course, there is a more mundane explanation. This story may not be about politicization at all. Rather, it might be about analysts with different measurement criteria talking past each other. If CENTCOM is satisfied that the air campaign is killing significant numbers of ISIS fighters without risking U.S. troops, then it might reasonably view the effort so far as a success. But if DIA analysts believe that success requires recapturing ISIS-held territory and signs of political progress in Iraq and Syria, then its conclusions will obviously be more negative. Since the administration’s definition of victory is open to multiple interpretations, it would not be surprising to learn that analysts are making up their own.
Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair of International Politics and National Security, Associate Professor of Political Science, and Director of Studies at the Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University.