Stories are being circulated by Obama officials and some former intelligence officers that the Obama administration was caught off guard by the recent offensive in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) terrorist group because of a failure by U.S. intelligence agencies to provide warning about the ISIS threat.
Some former intelligence officers are blaming this failure on a lack of human intelligence sources in Iraq and an over-reliance on technical intelligence collection.
Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, disagrees. He says the Iraq crisis is a policy and not an intelligence failure.
Rogers says the signs were there about the ISIS threat and the deteriorating situation in Iraq but Obama officials ignored them. He contends that “It was very clear to me years ago that ISIS was pooling up in a dangerous way — building training camps, drawing in jihadists from around the world. We saw all of that happening.”
I agree with Chairman Rogers. There was a wealth of information in the news media over the last year that a sectarian war was brewing in Iraq and ISIS was gaining strength in both Iraq and Syria. I am certain U.S. intelligence agencies provided similar assessments to U.S. officials based on classified information.
The event that should have caused Obama officials to shift their approach to Iraq occurred last December when ISIS seized control of Fallujah and parts of the city of Ramadi. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn issued a public warning about the significance of this development in February when he testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that ISIS “will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.”
That sounds to me like a top U.S. intelligence official was doing his job by warning U.S. officials about major global security threats.
Some have claimed U.S. intelligence analysis about ISIS could have been better and that we lack enough human intelligence sources on the ground in Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed “nobody expected” ISIS to advance so rapidly against Iraqi forces” because “we don’t have people embedded in those units.” Kerry presumably meant CIA did not have sources within ISIS.
Intelligence in areas like Iraq is always going to be limited, especially in a country where there is no U.S. troop presence and high levels of anti-Americanism. Penetrating close-knit Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS is extremely difficult for CIA, especially when they operate in dangerous areas like Iraq and Syria.
Blaming intelligence agencies for not providing a precise warning about the ISIS assault on Mosul last month distorts the capabilities of intelligence analysts. While intelligence assessments often contain remarkable foresight, intelligence agencies don’t possess crystal balls and cannot predict future actions by human actors with 100 percent accuracy.
I believe the crisis in Iraq is a major U.S. policy failure due to the Obama administration’s failure to leave a small troop presence behind after the 2011 troop withdrawal and the repeated tendency by Obama officials to discount and downplay the continuing threat from radical Islamist groups. We saw this in September 2012 when Obama officials claimed the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the result of an anti-Muslim video and not an attack by radical Islamists.
The intelligence oversight committees should review classified analysis on Iraq, Syria, and ISIS produced over the last year to determine whether intelligence agencies failed to provide adequate warning of the ISIS threat. I believe such an inquiry will find that U.S. intelligence analysts provided the Obama administration with excellent analysis about ISIS and the deteriorating situation in Iraq but Obama officials ignored it.