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A Brief Intelligence Reality Check

May 26, 2015

Our right wing is in a flutter over recently declassified and released Pentagon intelligence documents regarding Middle Eastern events in recent years. FoxNews is blaring about failures to miss the rise of the Islamic State and (of course) about Benghazi, in its customary way, but without much context.

Worse is this piece, which has a pronouncedly conspiratorial bent, implying that the Pentagon was somehow in on the rise of the Islamic State — which is precisely what Tehran and Moscow want you to think. The documents in question, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a right-wing group, can be seen in full here, but the report generating the most heat, if not light, is this one.

This is an early August 2012 field report to the Defense Intelligence Agency, known in the trade as an Intelligence Information Report or IIR. As it states clearly, this is an “information report, not finally evaluated intelligence.” Its contents are deemed explosive by those seeking explosions. According to outraged observers online, this DIA IIR is “proof” that “the Pentagon” and “the Intelligence Community” knew more about the rise of the Islamic State than they let on. At best, they’re fools; at worst, they’re deceivers who have lied to the American people.

It’s time for a reality check. Having written my share of IIRs, let me explain a few things to you. First off, this report, which is classified SECRET/NOFORN (i.e. it’s far from “highly classified”) is so heavily redacted that it’s difficult to say much meaningful about it. Who filed this IIR has been taken out, and its distribution list (at least what we can see of it) is the usual alphabet soup of DoD and IC headquarters and agencies. Nothing special here, not one bit.

As for the pronouncements in this IIR, which are taken as highly meaningful by the conspiracy-minded, they are routine, the sort of thing found in the thousands of IIRs that DIA generates annually, on a wide range of subjects. Is this the take of a U.S. defense attaché somewhere in the Middle East, and therefore a reflection of his/her personal views only? Is this the rant of someone who claims good access, who may (or may not) have that? Are these the ramblings of a partner security service — in other words, glorified hall gossip — that an attaché felt obliged to report back in that mixture of “FYI” and “CYA” that dominates inside the Beltway? Given the heavy redactions, it’s simply impossible to say.

What we can say with certainty, however, is that this IIR is not the view of “the Defense Intelligence Agency” or “the Pentagon,” much less “the Intelligence Community.” The IC is a sprawling enterprise of seventeen different agencies, some of which don’t play well with each other. Plus, not to put too fine a point on this, DIA isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the IC shed, being viewed as a bit of an also-ran by CIA and NSA, who are the Big Dogs of American intelligence in terms of mission, budgets, and prestige.

This is but one IIR, whose provenance we know basically nothing about. Don’t read too much into it. There is nothing conspiratorial here to those who understand the IC. Raw intelligence like this is often wide of the mark, and DIA’s reputation here is less than stellar. Has everybody forgotten about CURVEBALL so soon?

I am pretty critical of the Obama administration’s policy towards the Islamic State, as I’ve written about many times, and it’s clear that calling them the “JV team” was a stupid mistake. As I’ve reported, there has been robust debate inside the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community for several years about what the Islamic State exactly is, and what should be done about, and it’s safe to say that most of DoD and the IC today are out of step with the White House’s soft-touch approach to its pseudo-war against this virulent and fanatical enemy.

This lone IIR is but a single data point that serious analysts will not get worked up over, as opposed to those who have ideological axes to grind, to say nothing of the tinfoil-hat brigade. After 9/11, the Intelligence Community was exhorted to “connect the dots” better. I would caution all to observe that this is a mere dot, one whose provenance and reliability we do not know.

On a final note, let me add that, while I am in favor of the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community releasing more classified documents to promote greater public understanding — an area where this administration, contrary to its grandiose promises of transparency, has a dismal track record — releasing documents that are so heavily redacted as to be almost incomprehensible does not actually promote understanding of complex issues, rather the contrary.

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