In a Jan. 7, 2014, interview with New Yorker Editor David Remnick, President Barack Obama made a remark that could haunt him to his grave. Asked about his claims of sharp progress in the war on terrorism in light of the ISIL group’s gains in Iraq and Syria, Obama told Remnick, one of his biographers: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee (junior varsity) team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
As ISIL continues to wreak havoc directly in the Middle East and indirectly in Europe — it bears much responsibility for the mass refugee crisis — the “jayvee” remark continues to make the president look foolish. But now explosive allegations that Pentagon officials manipulated their analysts’ reports about ISIL to make the U.S. strategic approach look successful suggest Obama was only repeating what he had been told.
A front-page New York Times story Wednesday largely confirmed a report from the conservative Daily Beast website that more than 50 Defense Intelligence Agency analysts who reported to the U.S. Central Command — commonly known as Centcom, the Pentagon branch responsible of the U.S. military response to ISIL in Iraq and Syria — have formally complained their reports had been distorted for years.
With members of both parties in Congress expressing indignation in response, the Pentagon’s inspector general’s office has begun a probe into whether Centcom brass engaged in any “falsification, distortion, delay, suppression or improper modification of intelligence information.”
At any point in U.S. history, such allegations would be troubling. But coming in the wake of intelligence agencies’ debacle in the run-up to the second Iraq war, these claims are especially appalling. Whether it was embellished to serve a pro-war narrative or the result of poor spy work, these agencies’ confident assertion that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction helped lead America to invade Iraq in 2003, to ultimately disastrous results.
This should have been a deeply chastening moment for the U.S. national security establishment. If the allegations are borne out, the media and Congress should strive to find out why it wasn’t.
In his memoirs, Robert Gates — Obama’s first defense secretary — complained bitterly about White House operatives who saw every national security and foreign policy issue through a political prism, gauging what response would most benefit the president and help secure his re-election. This attitude might well have prompted rewrites of downbeat reports about the lack of U.S. success in dealing with ISIL.
But ultimately — whatever the perceived pressure from White House aides — leaders of the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence agencies have a responsibility to keep America safe. This new scandal suggests a loyalty to another, far less savory priority: keeping up appearances. The sad result is that Americans are likely to be even more skeptical of their government’s truthfulness going forward.
Editorial by the San Diego Union-Tribune