Commentary

Politicization of Intelligence: Lessons from a Long, Dishonorable History

The Daily Beast and the New York Times have reported allegations that senior (but thus far unidentified) Defense Department and United States Central Command (CENTCOM) officials have pressured intelligence analysts working ISIS to alter their conclusions to make their products more palatable to the Obama administration.

The Times story indicates that a DOD Inspector General (IG) investigation into the allegations is underway “after at least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst told the authorities that he had evidence that officials at United States Central Command — the military headquarters overseeing the American bombing campaign and other efforts against the Islamic State — were improperly reworking the conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama.”

This current episode of alleged politicized intelligence estimates sounds eerily familiar to students of the history of the US Intelligence Community in wartime.

This current episode of alleged politicized intelligence estimates sounds eerily familiar to students of the history of the US Intelligence Community in wartime, particularly the top-down pressure to “only give us the good news.”

One paragraph in the Times story particularly caught my eye. In explaining the Defense Intelligence Agency’s conduct on a pivotal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) during the Vietnam War, the Times pointed out that analysts’ conclusions that the US would unlikely ever defeat North Vietnamese forces “were repeatedly overruled by commanders who were certain that the United States was winning, and that victory was just a matter of applying more force.” There is a complex history behind how the NIE numbers were established, and it is one that may provide some lessons for looking at the current stories about politicized intelligence reports.

During the writing of the NIE, DIA personnel and several senior intelligence and command staff officers at the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), including America’s supreme commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, actively engaged in a successful effort to artificially lower the number of assessed Viet Cong (VC) guerillas facing US forces in Vietnam in NIE 14.3-67. That manipulation of intelligence data came after Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress on April 29, 1967, in which he said:

While [the enemy] is obviously is far from quitting, there are signs that his morale and his military structure are beginning to deteriorate. Their rate of decline will be in proportion to the pressure directed against him.

But at the very time Westmoreland made that statement, the available intelligence suggested the opposite the view of key CIA analysts and and even many on the general’s own intelligence staff—that the VC were getting stronger and that their numbers were far greater than Westmoreland’s official estimates claimed.

The DIA history cited by the Times includes this misleading paragraph on what was known as the “order of battle” (OB) controversy:

In any case, the episode did not cast Carroll’s Agency in a good light. By not budging on any figure over 300,000, MACV, supported by the Joint Chiefs, demonstrated DIA’s inability to resolve intelligence disputes and arrive at a universally agreed-upon estimate devoid of Service bias. Carroll repeatedly asked Williams and other subordinates to try to resolve the results, which they were unable to do. George Fowler, another Southeast Asia analyst in DIA (who would go on to become DIA’s Chief of Estimates for the region), was also unhappy with the conclusions, but no one in the Agency could dissuade MACV. DIA was subsequently buffeted by howls of protest from CIA—who misinterpreted DIA’s inability to revise the official OB as evidence that they actually sided with MACV—and continually rebuffed by MACV when it tried to revise the 300,000 figure.

Unsaid in that official history, was that DIA’s George Fowler was MACV’s chief defender in the confrontations with CIA analysts over what numbers the Intelligence Community should use on Viet Cong force levels in the NIE, which would be used by President Johnson, Secretary McNamara and other senior officials dealing with the war.

The controversy over that assessment sparked the most contentious Intelligence Community debate of the entire Vietnam War. It pitted Fowler and other DOD and MACV officials against CIA analysts George Allen and Sam Adams, who each subsequently published their accounts of the June 1967 conference on the NIE and Fowler’s role in defending Westmoreland’s official figure.

As Adams noted in his posthumously published memoir, War of Numbers:

The chief Hun opposing the upward revision of the OB turned out to be George Fowler. … ”DIA cannot agree to this estimate as currently written. What we object to is the numbers. We feel we should continue with the official order of battle.” (pp. 93-94)

In None So Blind, Allen tells a virtually identical tale about Fowler’s, and thus DIA’s, role in the coming debacle:

When representatives of the intelligence community convened to discuss the CIA’s draft [of NIE 14.3-67], the DIA spokesman, indicating he was reflecting MACV’s views, rejected the proposed increase in enemy strength. DIA had sought MACV’s comments on the draft and stubbornly defended the field command’s position throughout the coordination sessions. (p. 245)

The years after the 1968 Tet offensive by VC and North Vietnamese Army forces put the lie to the bogus numbers contained in NIE 14.3-67. Indeed, many of Westmoreland’s own officers who privately disagreed with the low official estimates would later appear, along with Adams and Allen, in a 1982 CBS documentary entitled “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” which subsequently sparked an unsuccessful libel suit by Westmoreland. (As a result of the settlement in that lawsuit, the program is no longer readily available to the general public.)

Having watched the documentary multiple times, I believe it is one of the best pieces of investigative TV journalism I’ve seen in my life. It should have served as a warning about the perils of senior government officials having the power to alter or even suppress intelligence estimates that contradicted their official spin. But it is clear that at least some at DIA today have failed to learn the correct lesson from that episode. DIA’s efforts to rewrite the history of that period to make the agency look like an unwilling victim of rather than an active participant in the politicization of NIE 14.3 also merits an independent investigation.

Unfortunately, as we saw in the case of the 2002 Iraq NIE (and the recent reports about ISIS intelligence reports), such episodes of politicization continue to be an occupational hazard in the IC.

Former senior CIA analyst Paul Pillar noted this repeatedly in his post-mortem on the Iraq intelligence debacle nearly a decade ago:

The actual politicization of intelligence occurs subtly and can take many forms. Context is all-important. Well before March 2003, intelligence analysts and their managers knew that the United States was heading for war with Iraq. It was clear that the Bush administration would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision. Intelligence analysts — for whom attention, especially favorable attention, from policymakers is a measure of success — felt a strong wind consistently blowing in one direction. The desire to bend with such a wind is natural and strong, even if unconscious.

Indeed, Pillar has admitted that he regrets his own role in helping write a “white paper” and NIE that served as instruments to justify a decision to go to war. His first-person account of the events, of the pressures analysts faced to give Bush and his advisors what they wanted, sound very much like those described by CENTCOM analysts to the Timesand Daily Beast.

His description of Bush administration official’s technique for politicizing the intelligence process should also serve as a guide for any investigation into alleged politicization of ISIS-related intelligence products at CENTCOM:

On any given subject, the intelligence community faces what is in effect a field of rocks, and it lacks the resources to turn over every one to see what threats to national security may lurk underneath. In an unpoliticized environment, intelligence officers decide which rocks to turn over based on past patterns and their own judgments. But when policymakers repeatedly urge the intelligence community to turn over only certain rocks, the process becomes biased. The community responds by concentrating its resources on those rocks, eventually producing a body of reporting and analysis that, thanks to quantity and emphasis, leaves the impression that what lies under those same rocks is a bigger part of the problem than it really is.

That is what happened when the Bush administration repeatedly called on the intelligence community to uncover more material that would contribute to the case for war. The Bush team approached the community again and again and pushed it to look harder at the supposed Saddam-al Qaeda relationship — calling on analysts not only to turn over additional Iraqi rocks, but also to turn over ones already examined and to scratch the dirt to see if there might be something there after all. The result was an intelligence output that — because the question being investigated was never put in context — obscured rather than enhanced understanding of al Qaeda’s actual sources of strength and support.

The allegations reported by the Times and the Daily Beast are too serious a matter to be left to the DOD IG, particularly given the DOD IG’s recent track record in dealing with high-profile whistleblower complaints. Indeed, DOD is currently the target of a $100 million lawsuit by NSA whistleblowers who reported waste, fraud, abuse and potential criminal conduct in the mismanagement of the THINTHREAD and TRAILBLAZER SIGINT collection and analysis programs. With respect to the CENTCOM analysts’ allegations of politicization, the Intelligence Community Whistleblowing and Source Protection Office would be a far more appropriate entity to conduct this inquiry than the DOD IG, now under a major legal cloud. Moreover, as CENTCOM is hardly the only Intelligence Community element producing estimates on ISIS, a thorough investigation would encompass all IC components that have produced analytical products or estimates on the group. Any report issued should include an unclassified version for public release. Only then will the public have a means to judge whether or not our government’s intelligence estimates are being compromised to advance an Obama administration political line on the campaign against ISIS. 

In the struggle against ISIS, such “obscuration of the facts” is something our country cannot tolerate, particularly if it is being fostered by senior defense and intelligence community officials too afraid to speak truth to power. Only time will tell whether the current investigation — presently led by an agency facing a $100 million lawsuit by former intelligence whistleblowers — will be an honest one.

Patrick G. Eddington was senior policy advisor to Rep. Rush Holt for over 10 years. He is currently a Policy Analyst in Homeland Security and Civil Liberties at the Cato Institute.