Concerns about the capabilities of U.S. intelligence agencies have been steadily rising, sparked in part by comments from President Barack Obama that they “underestimated” the rise of the group known as Islamic State.
But far from an intelligence failure, insiders and analysts warn the furor is symptomatic of larger problems that could haunt the U.S. in years to come.
For weeks, Islamic State militants have besieged Kobani, the majority-Kurd Syrian city at the doorstep of NATO partner Turkey. Yet for weeks, U.S. military leaders said Kobani was not the focus of anti-IS strategy.
Even as the U.S. authorized airdrops of aid to the town’s Kurdish defenders, and airstrikes against IS targets in Kobani intensified, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that the aid didn’t represent a shift in policy.
For critics of U.S. efforts to check the expansion of IS, the question is a resounding “why not?” More importantly, they ask, why has the U.S. government been, by its own admission, behind the curve of events unfolding in Syria and Iraq.
Symptomatic of larger problems?
Some critics of the U.S. administration have been quick to blame the problem on President Barack Obama and what they see as a weak foreign policy. Others have called it a failure of the U.S. intelligence community.
But some, including former members of the intelligence community and ex-government officials, see the crisis as symptomatic of larger problems not likely to go away in what promises to be a long battle against IS and groups with similar ambitions.
“I think it is fair to say the intelligence community was well aware of the problems,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I suspect their basic analysis of ISIS (the Islamic State) was sufficient.”
Gerecht previously served as a Middle Eastern specialist at the CIA's Directorate of Operations and argues U.S. intelligence could have been better had Washington maintained a military presence in Iraq. Yet he contends the main problem, as it pertains to the Islamic State, was political.
“The White House has a certain narrative it wants to take about the Middle East, about jihadism, about al-Qaida, those that give allegiance to al-Qaida or to ISIS, so I think that narrative got in the way of the analysis,” he said.
That administration narrative, Gerecht said, included the view that the Islamic State was not the main threat. And while IS was an outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq, eventually splitting with al-Qaida’s leadership, President Obama at one point compared IS to a “junior varsity” sports team, not in the same league as other, still loyal al-Qaida affiliates.
Obama later said that his “junior varsity” reference had been taken out of context, with the White House clarifying that he was talking not specifically about IS but about Islamist groups in general.
The blame game
But it was not just the Obama administration that may not have been paying attention to the warnings.
“Republicans and many in the military that had been central to the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, frankly, kind of wanted to claim success,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “There was no real constituency in Washington for this sort of information.”
Even those focused on the region were often sidetracked by the conditions that allowed the Islamic State to thrive. U.S. politicians determined to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad often overlooked the more dangerous elements within anti-Assad forces. Others, bent on distancing the U.S. from the sectarian policies of Iraq's then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, provided a vacuum that helped Sunni discontent to grow.
Publicly, though, much of the blame has fallen on the U.S. intelligence community. President Obama told reporters in August that the advance of the Islamic State group across Syria and Iraq was “more rapid than the intelligence estimates.” On CBS’ 60 Minutes last month, Obama said, "I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”
Yet since at least February, top intelligence officials were sharing stark assessments of the threat posed by IS.
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper put the number of IS fighters across Iraq and Syria at 20,000. Then-Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, also warned that IS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength,” going on to say that the group “has exploited the permissive security environment to increase its operations and presence in many locations.”
Despite such warnings, the response by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to the president’s comments seem conciliatory, with top officials publicly admitting they underestimated the Islamic State’s “will to fight” while overestimating the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.
For some former officials, like Sarah Chayes, the mea culpas ring hollow.
“I don’t believe that you can’t gauge people’s willingness to fight,” she said
Chayes served as a special adviser to former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen and said the political climate in Iraq made Sunni Arab sympathy, and support, for IS nearly inevitable and something the intelligence community should have seen coming.
“When you have Shi’ite militias [in Iraq] acting as death squads and these developments seem to be increasing, not decreasing, people are going to be fighting for their survival. How could you possibly underestimate peoples’ willingness to fight under those circumstances?” asked Chayes.
According to intelligence officials, such information was, and continues to be, readily available to top policymakers.
“Our experts routinely provide insights that explain the deeper context behind issues, illuminate underlying factors that drive developments, and identify patterns and trends,” CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz told VOA. “We have never lost sight of our mission to provide consumers of our intelligence with a big picture understanding of key national security challenges.”
But the impact of such intelligence was muted, in part, because while it talked about the potential threat posed by IS, policymakers had their eye on threats deemed more immediate. “ISIS and its predecessors at that time didn’t fall under that category,” the New America Foundation's Fishman said.
“As a result, the intelligence community was focused on the sort of primary needs of policy makers… terrorist groups that posed a more direct threat to the United States.”
Despite such criticism, U.S. intelligence officials say the community continues to work at “an intense tempo” on numerous global crises. Nor are intelligence officials taking the failure to properly assess the will to fight of both the Islamic State and the Iraqi security forces lightly.
“The [intelligence community] continuously works to improve analytic methodologies,” a senior intelligence official told VOA, aiming for a more “intimate and detailed insight” into even the smallest terror units operating on the ground.
The CIA says it also continues to track “a wide-range of terrorist groups,” according to agency spokesman Todd Ebitz, watching for signs any one group may be “shifting its focus or increasing its capabilities in a way that threatens the United States.”
But that is of little comfort to analysts like Fishman, who say designating only groups “actively and directly trying to attack the United States” as threats is a serious misstep.
“Groups like this [IS] can pose a major threat to U.S. interests, even if they’re not focused on attacking the United States,” Fishman said. “The growth of this organization in Syria and Iraq poses a very serious destabilizing threat in the Middle East in a way that could really disrupt what has been considered core U.S. interests for decades.”
Like Fishman, Chayes puts part of the blame on efforts to reform the U.S. intelligence community following the 9/11 terror attacks against the United States.
She said while the changes did help improve intelligence by increasing communication between agencies, the changes also aimed U.S. intelligence “in the wrong direction.”
“What you had is a drift of the intelligence community toward essentially being a paramilitary organization,” Chayes said, “the intelligence gathering and analysis being in support of that sort of paramilitary activity: basically finding and fixing targets.”
Former CIA specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht is even more blunt in his assessment of just how much the U.S. missed by downplaying its own intelligence when it comes to the Islamic State.
“The problem of the Islamic State is certainly greater than the problem of the Taliban in 1998,” he said.