U.S. policy leaders, including President Obama, were repeatedly warned for more than a year by the U.S. intelligence community that the Islamic State terror group was gaining significant strength in Syria and was on the verge of seizing territory deep inside Iraq, where the military was struggling to respond.
The private assessments, which were confirmed to The Washington Times on Monday, conflict with Mr. Obama’s claim on national television over the weekend that America’s spies had underestimated the rise and capabilities of the Islamic State and had overestimated the Iraqi military’s ability and will to fight the group.
Despite heavy media fervor and outcry from at least one senior member of the intelligence oversight community on Capitol Hill, the White House stood by the president’s comments on Monday, but said it was not Mr. Obama’s intent to cast blame on the intelligence community.
Sources familiar with the U.S. intelligence community assessment said senior officials within the administration and Congress were given explicit warnings as far back as 15 months ago that Iraq’s military was struggling to repel increasingly sophisticated attacks by the group — also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
Intelligence also told officials that a new terrorist leadership circle around Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had established such a firm safe haven inside war-torn Syria that it was regularly funneling weaponry and foreign fighters into Iraq.
The assessments long predated most Americans’ knowledge of the Islamic State threat. And the fact that the warnings were given to the White House as far back as June 2013 underscored frustration now ripping through U.S. intelligence circles in response to the claims Mr. Obama made Sunday night.
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Some in Congress sought to defend the intelligence community and dispute the president’s assessment Monday.
“This was not an intelligence community failure but a failure by policymakers to confront the threat,” Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Times.
“National security experts — both inside and outside the government — repeatedly warned, a year before ISIL’s drive into Mosul, that Iraqi Security Forces faced severe pressure,” Mr. Rogers said.
He added that, “for over a year, U.S. intelligence agencies specifically warned that ISIL was taking advantage of the situation in Syria to recruit members and provoke violence that could spill into Iraq and the rest of the region.”
Mr. Rogers’ comments dovetailed with claims by other sources, who confirmed on condition of anonymity Monday that intelligence community analysts had begun circulating assessments on the growing threat posed by the Islamic State more than a year ago.
One such set of assessments came in summer 2013, shortly after Iraqi police and soldiers had failed to repel a series of Islamist attacks that resulted in the freeing of hundreds of terrorists from the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons in Iraq on July 21, 2013.
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What got flagged by analysts back in Washington was the level of sophistication in the attacks, along with the Iraqi military’s failure to contain it.
Specific attention was given to the way Islamic State fighters had used numerous mortars in coordination with traditional car bombing, and the way that Iraqi forces were unable to get reinforcements to the attack sites quickly enough because the Islamist fighters had made the advance move of forming blocking teams to stall the help from arriving.
The intelligence assessments maintained that the group that would become the Islamic State had continually gained strength starting in 2011, and had essentially supplanted the old al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) group, thinned out by fighting from 2006 through 2008 with U.S. forces stationed in Iraq.
The assessments made clear how the new al Qaeda offshoot, with the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was being controlled by al-Baghdadi from a safe harbor inside Syria.
By early 2014, the intelligence began surfacing publicly in open congressional hearings. During January and February of this year, specifically, several senior intelligence community leaders offered sobering assessments of the Islamic State’s capabilities and highlighted concerns about the Iraqi government’s ability to respond.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the then-Defense Intelligence Agency director, warned that the Islamic State was poised to “take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.”
Appearing at a Feb. 11 hearing, Gen. Flynn told lawmakers that the Iraqi government’s “refusal to address” long-standing grievances of Iraq’s Sunni population, as well as the Iraqi military’s “continued heavy-handed approach to counterterror operations,” were leading some Sunni tribes in Iraq to be “more permissive of AQI’s presence.”
He warned outright that the Islamic State was exploiting a “permissive security environment to increase its operations and presence in many locations and also has expanded into Syria and Lebanon to inflame tensions throughout the region.”
A week earlier, CIA Director John O. Brennan had told lawmakers that he and others in the intelligence community were concerned not only that al Qaeda was using Syria to recruit foreign fighters to “carry out attacks inside Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk had also weighed in, warning lawmakers that the Islamic State was financing itself through a host of operations — including through the control of oil facilities in eastern Syria.
“ISIL has such a media presence, such a propaganda presence, and is able to self-sustain itself by controlling facilities in eastern Syria, including oil facilities, and also through extortion rackets in cities in western Iraq, that it will be able to maintain its cycle of operations,” Mr. McGurk said during a Feb. 5 hearing.
Despite such testimony, White House spokesman Josh Earnest stood by President Obama’s “60 Minutes” claim Monday, asserting that “nobody predicted the speed and pace with which ISIL would advance across the Syrian border with Iraq and make dramatic gains across the countryside in a way that allowed them to hold large chunks of territory.”
Mr. Earnest did, however, seek to walk back one portion of what Mr. Obama told CBS.
During the interview, CBS host Steve Kroft had asked the president what he thought of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper’s claim that Washington not only underestimated the Islamic State but also overestimated the will of Iraq’s military to fight the extremists.
“That’s true,” Mr. Obama responded. “That’s absolutely true.
“Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” the president said.
Those comments had prompted some media commentators Monday to claim Mr. Obama was blaming the intelligence community for not warning him sooner about the Islamic State’s rise.
Mr. Earnest shot back at such characterizations.
“That was not what the president’s intent was,” he said. “What the president was trying to make clear … [is] how difficult it is to predict the will of security forces based in another country to fight. That is difficult business.”
What remains up for debate is the extent to which Mr. Obama and his CBS interviewer may have simply misquoted Mr. Clapper. Both were apparently referring to remarks the director of intelligence made during a Sept. 17 telephone interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
According to Mr. Ignatius’ account, Mr. Clapper compared Washington’s response to Syria and Iraq to past misjudgments by Washington of developments in Vietnam.
“What we didn’t do was predict the will to fight. That’s always a problem. We didn’t do it in Vietnam. We underestimated the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and overestimated the will of the South Vietnamese,” Mr. Clapper said. “In this case, we underestimated [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army. … I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security force in the north coming. I didn’t see that. It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.”