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High stakes in CentCom intelligence controversy

The exterior of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. The facility is the headquarters for military operations in the Middle East and central Asia.
The exterior of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. The facility is the headquarters for military operations in the Middle East and central Asia.
Published Dec. 6, 2015

TAMPA — Since Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's bravura performance during the Persian Gulf War, U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base has been a point of pride for the Tampa Bay area.

It is a major force in the local economy and a positive emblem for the region's self-identity.

But questions raised by what is described in published reports as a virtual revolt in the ranks of CentCom intelligence analysts may yet test the headquarters' image.

The Pentagon recently expanded an investigation into complaints by a group of CentCom analysts who accuse supervisors of manipulating intelligence to disguise failures in the training of Iraqi troops and in the U.S. campaign to cripple the Islamic State group.

The Defense Department's inspector general has reportedly collected troves of emails and documents from CentCom computers. The New York Times has reported that military officials told Congress that some material may have been deleted before investigators arrived.

"I have not heard this much concern about the massaging of intel since the hubbub of 'no weapons of mass destruction' " at the start of the Iraq War in 2003, said James Carafano, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "So is it true? I don't know. Is it a pervasive claim? Yes. Does it smack of being a systemic problem? Yes. Mostly it sounds like the chorus line from The Wiz, 'Don't nobody bring me no bad news.' "

This scandal so far has played out invisibly to a Tampa community that has long embraced CentCom, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and central Asia.

The thousands who work at the command are neighbors, friendly faces in line at the local supermarket and parents of kids in school. If the scandal ends up roiling the command, its ripples could, to some extent, be felt by the entire community.

"People in Tampa are keenly aware of what goes on down there," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "That's why we are so protective of them."

At the heart of the allegations of manipulated intelligence is a little-known CentCom analyst who lives in Brandon.

• • •

His name is Gregory Hooker.

The New York Times reported that Hooker, a senior Iraq analyst with more than two decades of experience, is the leader of a group of perhaps 50 analysts who have said intelligence is being manipulated by their supervisors to paint a rosier picture of the fight against ISIS than is justified by the facts.

Hooker, 50, is not commenting to the media. Much of the New York Times reporting is based on sources with knowledge of the situation who declined to be identified because of the ongoing investigation.

The newspaper said the analysts accuse CentCom's top two intelligence officers, Maj. Gen. Steven Grove and his civilian deputy, Gregory Ryckman, of changing their draft intelligence assessments.

"Analysts say the dispute centers on whether the military is being honest about the political and religious situation in Iraq and whether a bombing campaign can change it," the New York Times reported. Analysts felt pressured to keep their assessments positive, the newspaper said.

Analysts who have worked at CentCom said the headquarters can present challenges that may not exist at civilian agencies or other arms of the government. For one, some say, the natural inclination of a military command is to speak as one voice with an adherence to the chain of command.

"I do think there is a great pressure there to respond to and fit into what the commander is focused on, and either wants to hear or doesn't want to hear," said J. Matthew McInnis, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. He served as a CentCom senior analyst on Iran from 2010 to 2013, though McInnis said he never felt pressured to change his intelligence.

In a command like CentCom, McInnis said, analysts can find themselves up against "individuals who have been in Tampa a long time" and have accumulated institutional power difficult to overturn.

Of reports about the CentCom whistle-blowers, McInnis said: "In some ways it doesn't surprise me. … It disappoints me."

• • •

So far, the controversy at CentCom has caused nary a ripple outside MacDill's gates, and civilian business and political leaders expect it to pass with no effect on Tampa's relationship with the base.

"I don't see any cracks in that relationship at all," said Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership and before that president of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. "This is like, the blood that flows through our veins in this community is our relationship with MacDill and those commands."

On a public relations spectrum that has Schwarzkopf on the feel-good high end and the media circus over Tampa hostess Jill Kelley's friendships with CentCom generals at the please-stop bottom, the current controversy isn't near either extreme, Buckhorn said.

"My sense is that this is just a blip on the radar in a political landscape in Washington, D.C., that is very unsettled," said Buckhorn, whose relationships at MacDill go back to the early 1990s, when he and others fought to keep the base from being closed to cut military spending.

Ever since, he said, Tampa residents have come to realize exactly how important the base is to the local economy. The most recent estimate of its annual economic impact is $4.7 billion a year, according to the base's host unit, the 6th Air Mobility Wing. Of that, MacDill's military and civilian payroll totals over $1 billion a year.

"It's humongous," Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce president Bob Rohrlack said. The chamber used to hold an annual doing-business-with-MacDill seminar to coach local companies on how to get on the military's procurement lists for goods and services. Now it does several a year.

Local groups don't concern themselves with internal military matters like how intelligence is handled at the joint commands.

At the chamber, the mission is to make sure leaders at MacDill understand they have the "full, complete support" of businesses and others around the Tampa Bay area, so that "when they go to the Pentagon, they always have the best story to tell," Rohrlack said.

That's because the last thing the bay area wants is Washington putting MacDill on a list of potential base closures or realignments, as in the early 1990s.

"It was a horrible experience, but it was a great wakeup call for the community," Rohrlack said. "People still talk about it happening like it was yesterday."

• • •

CentCom officials did not respond to a request for comment by the Tampa Bay Times. But its commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin III, told Congress at a hearing in September that he would take "appropriate action" when investigations are complete.

Austin testified that the command has 1,200 "seasoned" intelligence professionals. While he did not indicate where they are located, a large number, like Hooker, are based at MacDill.

"As a commander, I greatly value and seek their input and insights," Austin testified. He deflected concerns that altered intelligence could have unduly influenced the president.

Cooked intelligence is at once both one of the oldest sins in the military world and perhaps its most pernicious. So as unusual as the events at CentCom might be, military experts said they're not too startling in the spectrum of U.S. military history.

Michael Pheneger, a retired Army colonel who is a former deputy intelligence officer at CentCom, said one need only look at the runup to the war in Iraq in 2003 and erroneous claims of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's arsenal. Lyndon B. Johnson's military commanders made a high art of portraying success in Vietnam. John F. Kennedy played up a supposed "missile gap" with the Soviets.

"It's not something that happens every day," Pheneger said. "But it's not something unprecedented in this country.''

While events at CentCom make headlines, Florida's congressional delegation is watching.

"We have the most skilled and capable military leadership in the world," said Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, "and we need to continue to trust them."

Still, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has said people at CentCom ought to be fired if intelligence was manipulated. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor tends to agree.

"These are very serious allegations, and if they prove true, people must be held accountable," said Castor, D-Tampa. Just before news of analyst complaints broke, Castor went to MacDill and talked with CentCom analysts about the Iran nuclear deal, but she detected no undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

"They're all very professional," she said. "That's why these allegations come as a surprise. That's why they're very serious. You can't fudge intelligence."

• • •

One thing is certain: Analysts and military professionals will carefully monitor how CentCom treats its whistle-blowers.

"Signing onto a whistle-blowing complaint can easily be a career-ender," David Shedd, a former acting head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, recently wrote for Defense One, a national security news website. "This is an extremely high-stakes, high-profile case for the intelligence community. The nation's analytic professionals are watching closely to see how it is handled."

To some, the analysts' stand has already sent a positive message to the intelligence world.

"I'm proud of these guys," said John Stroncheck, a Tampa resident who is a former CentCom analyst. "They stood up against what was happening. Their integrity was trampled on."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com. Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com. Follow @Times_Levesque or @Danielson_Times.