Snickers Bars and Fudged ISIS Intelligence

Yesterday, Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef informed us that there is now a second allegation of manipulation of intelligence on ISIS:

U.S. military analysts told the nation’s top intelligence official that their reports on ISIS were skewed and manipulated by their bosses, The Daily Beast has learned. The result: an overly optimistic account of the campaign against the terror group.

The complaints, lodged by analysts at U.S. Central Command in 2015, are separate from allegations that analysts made to the Defense Department inspector general, who is now investigating “whether there was any falsification, distortion, delay, suppression, or improper modification of intelligence information” by the senior officials that run CENTCOM’s intelligence group.

This second set of accusations, which have not been previously reported, were made to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). They show that the officials charged with overseeing all U.S. intelligence activities were aware, through their own channels, of potential problems with the integrity of information on ISIS, some of which made its way to President Obama.

Once again, it is senior officials at CENTCOM who are accused of manipulating the reports from analysts to make it look as though the US is making more progress against ISIS than is actually happening.

I had never gotten around to posting on this issue when the first accusations came out, but it is my belief that neither investigation will find these senior people at CENTCOM to be guilty of any transgressions. Instead, it seems very likely to me that these officers will claim that they were taking part in an Information Operation aimed at making the fighters within ISIS think that the situation is deteriorating more than is the actual case. I wrote about operations of this sort, termed MILDEC (for Military Deception) back in 2010.

One tidbit I had found back then related to the functions of MILDEC:

Causing ambiguity, confusion, or misunderstanding in adversary perceptions of friendly critical information, which may include: unit identities, locations, movements, dispositions, weaknesses, capabilities, strengths, supply status, and intentions.

Simply by stating that this is what they were doing, these senior officers seem likely to avoid any negative consequences for what they have done. But Harris and Youssef seem to think that the fudging of data was done to fit the intelligence to the Obama administration’s previous comments:

The analysts have said that they believe their reports were altered for political reasons, namely to adhere to Obama administration officials’ public statements that the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS is making progress and has put a dent in the group’s financing and operations.

While that does seem like a distinct possibility, it feels backwards to me. Although the Pentagon is not allowed to aim any of its propaganda toward a US audience (unlike recent loosening of this regulation for propaganda from the State Department), I would think that the real target for these senior officers would be the President and Congress. Even though they have the cover of saying they are spinning yarns to fool ISIS, keeping the bosses who control the purse strings happy would fit quite well with what is going on. [Over at Moon of Alabama, b has an alternate theory about various forces at work relating to ISIS, especially in Syria.]

What a coincidence for me, though, that as I was thinking about MILDEC relating to capability estimates of ISIS, this hilarious AP story came out less than 24 hours later:

Faced with a cash shortage in its so-called caliphate, the Islamic State group has slashed salaries across the region, asked Raqqa residents to pay utility bills in black market American dollars, and is now releasing detainees for a price of $500 a person.

The extremists who once bragged about minting their own currency are having a hard time meeting expenses, thanks to coalition airstrikes and other measures that have eroded millions from their finances since last fall. Having built up loyalty among militants with good salaries and honeymoon and baby bonuses, the group has stopped providing even the smaller perks: free energy drinks and Snickers bars.

Interestingly, the story goes back over most of the information in those two opening paragraphs and makes attributions (although some look pretty flimsy) for the sources of the information. The Snickers part, however, is credited to no sources.

At a time when senior officers at CENTCOM are fudging data on ISIS supplies and capabilities, perhaps as part of an Information Operation, why shouldn’t they throw in a gratuitous Snickers jab?

But then again, if ISIS really isn’t getting their Snickers bars, we could be in big trouble:

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
12 replies
  1. bevin says:

    ” Instead, it seems very likely to me that these officers will claim that they were taking part in an Information Operation aimed at making the fighters within ISIS think that the situation is deteriorating more than is the actual case. ”

    On the other hand there is the real, if shocking possibility that the operation was intended to distract attention from Islamic State’s imminent and, in Washington. acceptable victory:

    http://russia-insider.com/en/politics/russias-ambassador-uk-drops-bombshell-us-expected-isis-seize-damascus-october/ri12860

    After all the contrast between the success of Russia’s intervention and the puzzling inability of the US and all its allies to make a dent in ISIS’s roaring trade in oil, its massive convoys of troops and materiel across the desert and its territorial expansion only became obvious when the Russian Air Force started work.
    It was at that point, in the Fall, that the fact that ISIS was not much inconvenienced by ‘western’ opposition made even the least enquiring among minds think.

    It is hard not to conclude that the campaign against ISIS was one to which nobody was deeply committed and some-Turkey, Qatar and the Saud family- were deeply opposed. Perhaps, as b at MoA and Seymour Hersh in the London Review suggest, the Pentagon is doing its best to sabotage the CIA and Obama’s NSC. If so, we are in Seven Days in May territory and, this time the Generals have got it right.

  2. TarheelDem says:

    b at Moon of Alabama thinks there is serious conflict between the Pentagon, which is tangibly supporting Kurdish (including, according to b, Kurdish YPG) troops and Brennan’s Saudi-friendly CIA, which supports “moderate” Salafi jihadis that fade into the Nusra Front. This smells like more of that fight but carried out through willing media fronts.

    I see that jo6pac has a link to the article.

    Yet again time to ask whose side Brennan is on.

    Centcom providing rosy scenarios? A practice of generals that dates back to William Westmoreland’s body counts in Vietnam and likely has plagued senior commanding officers going back to antiquity.

    • Jim White says:

      .
      Yeah, b’s post is very interesting, that’s why I put in the link [well, Marcy also suggested it over the phone while I was writing the post and discussing another point for later].
      .
      And, yes, the rosy scenario painting is something that has grated on me all through both the Afghanistan and Iraq engagements. But in this case, with ISIS so spread out, it seemed like an actual IO might fit the situation.
      .
      And it’s good to hear from you again. I always value your insight and had noticed we hadn’t heard from you in a while. Hope all is well.

      • wayoutwest says:

        If there is an IO in progress it is aimed at the rubes in the Homeland because I doubt even Brennan believes the Islamic State can be manipulated with lame US propaganda.

        The public whistleblowing by some intelligence analysts , aimed at their managers but informing the media, probably relates to how they were publicly humiliated after 9/11 and used as scapegoats. They don’t want that to happen again.

        The fables Sy Hersh has been weaving lately, always based on unidentified sources, are certainly entertaining and show someone, in or out of the government/military, has an agenda. The actual actions, supposedly taken by some military brass in Syria countering Obama’s policies, he claims to be privy to, if true, would be treason. I’ve never viewed our military leadership as particularly bright but they do know there are limits to what they can do independently without facing consequences, Stanley McCrystal learned this lesson the hard way, perhaps he is one of Hersh’s unidentified sources.

  3. Pete says:

    Hmmm… arguments about what “intelligence” means, within and by the “national security” communities, are often specious at best. I mean, the fundamental issues for many (if not all) members of those bailiwicks are 1) to rationalize further budgeting for their particular endeavors and 2) facilitate advancement in their personal careers . In those lights, our actual “national security” is primarily a big old dog-whistle.

  4. Les says:

    You have to wonder if this is the internal dissent from the Pentagon that Sy Hersh referred to. From last week’s New York Times story:

    “Mr. Kerry enters the negotiations with very little leverage: The Russians have cut off many of the pathways the C.I.A. has been using for a not-very-secret effort to arm rebel groups, according to several current and former officials. Mr. Kerry’s supporters inside the administration say he has been increasingly frustrated by the low level of American military activity, which he views as essential to bolstering his negotiation effort.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/11/world/middleeast/russian-intervention-in-syrian-war-has-sharply-reduced-us-options.html?_r=0

  5. Jim White says:

    .
    @CTuttle 6:06 Aloha! A wonderful day to have so many familiar “faces” show up. I just returned from a fun evening of Gator softball with our younger daughter.

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