Alarm raised over report denouncing CentCom workplace culture

A finding that intelligence on ISIS was manipulated raises deeper issues, experts say.
The U.S. Central Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base, was the focus of a critical congressional report on Thursday. CHRIS URSO   |   Times (2014)
The U.S. Central Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base, was the focus of a critical congressional report on Thursday.CHRIS URSO | Times (2014)
Published August 13 2016

TAMPA — For retired Army intelligence officer D.J. Reyes, a scathing report by congressional Republicans accusing U.S. Central Command of manipulating intelligence churned up issues old and new.

But of greatest concern to Reyes and some other local intelligence experts is the reaction of leaders at CentCom and the nation's intelligence community to the complaints from career analysts described in the report.

"What troubles me more is the reporting of a 'toxic environment,' " said Reyes, a retired Army colonel now living in Tampa who was a director of intelligence under former CentCom commander Gen. David Petraeus and who worked closely with the intelligence directorate at the command.

The interim report, by the Joint Task Force on U.S. Central Command Intelligence Analysis, accuses CentCom leaders of manipulating intelligence to paint a rosier picture of the battle against the Islamic State group.

It contains results of an annual survey that describes a toxic work atmosphere where more than half of the analysts surveyed felt supervisors "distorted, suppressed or substantially altered analytic products" leading to "distortions of intelligence to fit a positive narrative."

The investigation covers what took place in the Joint Intelligence Center at CentCom's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, began to roll across Syria and Iraq starting in the spring of 2014.

Intelligence leaders at the command knew about the concerns, according to the report, and that has intelligence experts like Reyes concerned.

"The negative feedback is significant and is an indication and warning of deeper issues that must be addressed and resolved," Reyes said. "The lack of immediate response by the CentCom intelligence leadership and the intelligence community to address and rectify these problems, I believe, creates an atmosphere of distrust and lack of respect."

A former senior CIA operations officer now living in Tampa agrees with Reyes that military and intelligence leaders should have reacted faster to the festering problems. The survey, for instance, was conducted from August to October 2015.

"This is a typical 'protecting the rice bowl' response that has occurred in the past," said Lora Griffith, referring to the body-count inflation of the enemy during the Vietnam War.

"No one wants to jeopardize their position on the totem pole by raising anything potentially negative in spite of the negative effect that their action or inaction may have on operations," she said. "I believe senior leadership in every office they named should be held accountable."

Calling the report "groundbreaking," Griffith said it will put additional pressure on investigators from the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General, who are examining concerns that CentCom cooked the books on intelligence.

"Because it was published ahead of the IG report, I believe that the IG is going to have to take a firmer stance," Griffith said.

The results of that investigation are expected by the end of the year.

In addition to raising concerns about manipulating intelligence, the report says there was "confusion and uncertainty" about procedures and processes implemented by the new CentCom intelligence leadership brought in by Lloyd Austin III when he assumed command of CentCom in March 2013.

The report also criticized CentCom's reliance on operational intelligence, derived from those in the field, over "more objective and better documented intelligence reporting … particularly when the changes only appeared to be made in a more optimistic direction."

Reyes, who worked with Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and during the surge of troops in 2007, said such tensions between analytical and operational intelligence are routine.

"The key is that the senior intelligence official is the honest broker between his team of … analysts and their efforts, and the operational chain of command," Reyes said. "I personally experienced this in Iraq as David Petraeus professionally challenged the analysts' various assessments."

Many of the tensions revealed in the report could have been avoided had CentCom's intelligence directorate retained rather than eliminated an internal system that allowed everyone to better understand why decisions were being made, one former CentCom intelligence analyst said.

In its report, the task force recommended that CentCom reduce confusion and dissatisfaction in the workforce by increasing awareness of what's going on there.

"But that's what my office did," said Mike Lortz, now a University of South Florida master's of business administration student who was a civilian intelligence process analyst at CentCom from 2006 to 2011.

"Our reports provided overall awareness of what the directorate of intelligence was doing."

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