WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that military officials have skewed intelligence assessments about the United States-led campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State to provide a more optimistic account of progress, according to several officials familiar with the inquiry.
The investigation began 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, the government officials said.
Fuller details of the claims were not available, including when the assessments were said to have been altered and who at Central Command, or Centcom, the analyst said was responsible. The officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity about classified matters, said that the recently opened investigation focused on whether military officials had changed the conclusions of draft intelligence assessments during a review process and then passed them on.
Iraqi Army recruits in Taji in April with U.S. Army trainers. About 3,400 American troops are advising Iraqi forces. Credit John Moore/Getty Images
The prospect of skewed intelligence raises new questions about the direction of the government’s war with the Islamic State, and could help explain why pronouncements about the progress of the campaign have varied widely.
Legitimate differences of opinion are common and encouraged among national security officials, so the inspector general’s investigation is an unusual move and suggests that the allegations go beyond typical intelligence disputes. Government rules state that intelligence assessments “must not be distorted” by agency agendas or policy views. Analysts are required to cite the sources that back up their conclusions and to acknowledge differing viewpoints.
Under federal law, intelligence officials can bring claims of wrongdoing to the intelligence community’s inspector general, a position created in 2011. If officials find the claims credible, they are required to advise the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. That occurred in the past several weeks, the officials said, and the Pentagon’s inspector general decided to open an investigation into the matter.
Spokeswomen for both inspectors general declined to comment for this article. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the White House also declined to comment.
Col. Patrick Ryder, a Centcom spokesman, said he could not comment on a continuing inspector general investigation but said “the I.G. has a responsibility to investigate all allegations made, and we welcome and support their independent oversight.”
Numerous agencies produce intelligence assessments related to the Iraq war, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and others. Colonel Ryder said it was customary for them to make suggestions on one another’s drafts. But he said each agency had the final say on whether to incorporate those suggestions. “Further, the multisource nature of our assessment process purposely guards against any single report or opinion unduly influencing leaders and decision makers,” he said.
It is not clear how that review process changes when Defense Intelligence Agency analysts are assigned to work at Centcom — which has headquarters both in Tampa, Fla., and Qatar — as was the case of at least one of the analysts who have spoken to the inspector general. In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Pentagon has relocated more Defense Intelligence Agency analysts from the agency’s Washington headquarters to military commands around the globe, so they can work more closely with the generals and admirals in charge of the military campaigns.
Mr. Obama last summer authorized a bombing campaign against the Islamic State, and approximately 3,400 American troops are currently in Iraq advising and training Iraqi forces. The White House has been reluctant, though, to recommit large numbers of ground troops to Iraq after announcing an “end” to the Iraq war in 2009.
The bombing campaign over the past year has had some success in allowing Iraqi forces to reclaim parts of the country formerly under the group’s control, but important cities like Mosul and Ramadi remain under Islamic State’s control. There has been very little progress in wresting the group’s hold over large parts of Syria, where the United States has done limited bombing.
Some senior American officials in recent weeks have provided largely positive public assessments about the progress of the military campaign against the Islamic State, a Sunni terrorist organization that began as an offshoot of Al Qaeda but has since severed ties and claimed governance of a huge stretch of land across Iraq and Syria. The group is also called ISIS or ISIL.
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Obama’s Evolution on ISIS
Some of President Obama’s statements about the American strategy to confront ISIS and its effectiveness.
In late July, retired Gen. John Allen — who is Mr. Obama’s top envoy working with other nations to fight the Islamic State — told the Aspen Security Forum that the terror group’s momentum had been “checked strategically, operationally, and by and large, tactically.”
“ISIS is losing,” he said, even as he acknowledged that the campaign faced numerous challenges — from blunting the Islamic State’s message to improving the quality of Iraqi forces.
During a news briefing last week, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was more measured. He called the war “difficult” and said “it’s going to take some time.” But, he added, “I’m confident that we will succeed in defeating ISIL and that we have the right strategy.”
But recent intelligence assessments, including some by Defense Intelligence Agency, paint a sober picture about how little the Islamic State has been weakened over the past year, according to officials with access to the classified assessments. They said the documents conclude that the yearlong campaign has done little to diminish the ranks of the Islamic State’s committed fighters, and that the group over the last year has expanded its reach into North Africa and Central Asia.
Critics of the Obama administration’s strategy have argued that a bombing campaign alone — without a significant infusion of American ground troops — is unlikely to ever significantly weaken the terror group. But it is not clear whether Defense Intelligence Agency analysts concluded that more American troops would make an appreciable difference.
In testimony on Capitol Hill this year, Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the agency’s director, said sending ground troops back into Iraq risked transforming the conflict into one between the West and ISIS, which would be “the best propaganda victory that we could give.”
“It’s both expected and helpful if there are dissenting viewpoints about conflicts in foreign countries,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a forthcoming book, “Red Team,” that includes an examination of alternative analysis within American intelligence agencies. What is problematic, he said, “is when a dissenting opinion is not given to policy makers.”
The Defense Intelligence Agency was created in 1961, in part to avoid what Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense at the time, called “service bias.” During the 1950s, the United States grossly overestimated the size of the Soviet missile arsenal, a miscalculation that was fueled in part by the Air Force, which wanted more money for its own missile systems.
During the Vietnam War, the Defense Intelligence Agency repeatedly warned that even a sustained military campaign was unlikely to defeat the North Vietnamese forces. But according to an internal history of the agency, its conclusions 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’s a built-in tension for the people who work at D.I.A., between dispassionate analysis and what command wants,” said Paul R. Pillar, a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst who years ago accused the Bush administration of distorting intelligence assessments about Iraq’s weapons programs before the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.
“You’re part of a large structure that does have a vested interest in portraying the overall mission as going well,” he said.
By MARK MAZZETTI and MATT APUZZOAUG. 25, 2015
A version of this article appears in print on August 26, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Inquiry Weighs If ISIS Analysis Was Distorted . Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe
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