- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2016

In a damning assessment of the Obama administration’s handling of the war against the Islamic State, a House Republican task force concluded Thursday that senior military officials scrubbed intelligence reports on the terrorist group’s gains in Iraq and Syria, giving President Obama the rosier appraisal he wanted.

The task force said overly optimistic claims by the administration were based on intelligence reports that senior leaders at U.S. Central Command frequently revised over the objections of career analysts.

For example, while the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, was preparing to overrun the Iraqi city of Ramadi in the spring of 2015, the Pentagon was telling the media that the extremists were “on the defense” and “losing ground.”

While the accusations first surfaced last year, the report comes at a critical moment for Mr. Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who are accused by Republican nominee Donald Trump as “co-founders” of the Islamic State because of U.S. troop withdrawals and other policies that allegedly allowed the extremist group to gain strength. Mr. Trump renewed his line of attack Thursday, saying the president and Mrs. Clinton should receive “most valuable player” awards from the Islamic State for pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, while she was still secretary of state.

National security is a potential weakness for Mrs. Clinton by association with the administration. Polls show more than 60 percent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of the Islamic State, which has carried out or inspired a series of horrific attacks in the U.S. and its Western allies over the past year.

The House Republicans’ task force said reports from CENTCOM, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, “were consistently more positive than analysis produced by other elements of the Intelligence Community” about the Islamic State’s capabilities from mid-2014 to mid-2015.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican and a member of the task force, said the deception was “consistent with the administration’s narrative that this threat was not significant.” He referred to Mr. Obama’s claim in early 2014 that the Islamic State was nothing more than a “JV” terrorist group that posed little threat to the U.S.

“Claims that ISIS was the ‘JV team’ and that al Qaeda was ‘on the run’ were both a result — and a cause — of the politicization of intelligence at CENTCOM,” Mr. Pompeo said. “This intelligence manipulation provided space for both ISIS and al Qaeda to grow, and it put America at risk.”

House Democrats, who released their own findings Thursday, said the White House wasn’t guilty of interfering with the intelligence reports.

“We found no evidence of politicization of intelligence in this case,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee. “Nor did we — or the majority — find any evidence that the White House requested to, or in any manner attempted to, have the intelligence analysis conform to any preset or political narrative.”

But Democrats acknowledged that CENTCOM “created an overly insular process” for its intelligence assessments that “insufficiently accommodated dissenting views.”

James Phillips, a specialist on Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the administration “clearly downplayed the long-term security risks of the 2011 total U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in order to reap short-term domestic political benefits.”

“It also remained in denial about the threat posed by what the president called ‘a JV team,’” Mr. Phillips said. “When it comes to fighting terrorism and protecting American interests and allies in the Middle East, it is apparent that the JV team is in the White House.”

But he also said Mr. Trump’s claim that the president and Mrs. Clinton are “co-founders” of Islamic State is taking the criticism “a bridge too far.”

“They may have been clueless, feckless and myopic enablers of ISIS, but they were not co-founders,” he said.

Mr. Obama, who is vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, has ridiculed accusations in the past that he sought his news about the Islamic State through rose-colored glasses.

“I have made it repeatedly clear to all my top national security advisers that I never want them to hold back,” the president said last November. “It’s not as if I’ve been receiving wonderfully rosy, glowing portraits of what’s been going on in Iraq and Syria over the last year and a half. At my level, at least, we’ve had a pretty cleareyed, sober assessment of where we’ve made real progress and where we have not.”

The task force report refutes that claim, saying CENTCOM “regularly provided line-in/line-out edits and wording changes” to intelligence reports provided to then-Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, then commander of CENTCOM, and “other senior customers.” The edits resulted in the reports being “consistently more optimistic” than analysis provided by career CENTCOM experts.

“It further determined that numerous process changes implemented at CENTCOM as well as leadership deficiencies resulted in widespread dissatisfaction among CENTCOM analysts who felt their superiors were distorting their products,” the task force said.

Maj. Gen. Steven Grove, who led the CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate under Gen. Austin, regularly briefed senior U.S. intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, one of the president’s top intelligence advisers.

The lawmakers say that the problems didn’t exist when Gen. Austin’s predecessor, Marine Gen. James Mattis, held the post.

While military intelligence always contains some uncertainty, Mr. Pompeo said, “during this period, nearly every error was in one direction: downplaying the threat from radical Islamic terror.”

Throughout the first half of 2015, the report said, many CENTCOM press releases, statements and congressional testimonies “were significantly more positive than actual events.” For example, a CENTCOM official stated publicly that a major military assault to take back Mosul could begin as early as April or May 2015, and Gen. Austin told the House and Senate Armed Services committees that the Islamic State was in a “defensive crouch.”

But as of this month, the report noted, “Mosul remains under ISIL control and there has been no major military assault to retake it.”

Less than six months after Mr. Obama made his “JV” comment about the Islamic State, he was forced in June 2014 to acknowledge that the terrorist group was overrunning parts of Iraq. By August of that year, he was announcing airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition to begin driving back the extremists, and he has deployed gradually nearly 5,000 U.S. troops there as advisers and trainers for the Iraqi security forces.

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