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Defense Department IG report finds no intelligence falsification at CentCom

General Lloyd J. Austin III,  the retired Army general who ran CentCom at the time of the allegations, denied that he did not want to hear bad news about the fight against Islamic State. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
General Lloyd J. Austin III, the retired Army general who ran CentCom at the time of the allegations, denied that he did not want to hear bad news about the fight against Islamic State. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Feb. 2, 2017

TAMPA — The allegations were damning.

Intelligence officials at U.S. Central Command, the MacDill Air Force Base headquarters that oversees American military efforts in the Middle East, altered reports to paint a rosier picture of the battle against the Islamic State.

The charges cast doubt about whether then-President Barack Obama could rely on CentCom for accurate assessments of military operations. A congressional panel issued its own scathing report.

But after one of the most comprehensive investigations in its history, the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General says intelligence wasn't manipulated to change reality.

"We did not substantiate the most serious allegation, which was that intelligence was falsified," according to a 198-page unclassified report issued Wednesday. "Only a few witnesses described intelligence assessments as false, and they did not provide specific examples that supported the allegation.''

Investigators found that the command's intelligence unit, known as the J2, did not attempt to change reports to make them factually untrue or present any intelligence assessments they did not believe were accurate.

But while the report found no wrongdoing, investigators did note there was a "widespread perception of distortion" about CentCom intelligence and a lack of trust in its intelligence leadership. The report chalked that up to the frantic pace of work and the failure of leadership to inform the workforce of its decisionmaking rationale.

The inspector general's investigation stands in sharp contrast to a report issued in August by a Republican congressional task force that found CentCom changed its analysis to present a more optimistic picture of the battle against Islamic State fighters.

In a statement Wednesday, task force members noted that the inspector general also concluded that many analysts believed CentCom brass was distorting intelligence "to present a more positive view of the success of the (Iraqi Security Forces) and a more negative view of the success of ISIL."

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who took command of CentCom in March, said the findings in the inspector general's report are helpful.

"While the allegations were unsubstantiated, the . . . report did provide thoughtful and helpful recommendations on ways to make improvements within the command and we are taking those and others' recommendations to heart,'' he wrote in a statement.

Defense Department inspectors investigated allegations that as the Islamic State began rolling across Syria and Iraq in 2014, Maj. Gen. Steven Grove, the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command; Gregory Ryckman, vice director of intelligence; and William E. "Buddy" Rizzio, defense intelligence senior leader at CentCom's Joint Intelligence Center, falsified, distorted, suppressed or delayed intelligence products.

The motivation, according to the report, was to present "a more optimistic portrayal of the success of (CentCom's) efforts to degrade and destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)."

Each of the men denied the allegations.

Lloyd Austin, the retired Army general who ran CentCom at the time, denied that he did not want to hear bad news about the fight against the Islamic State.

In an interview with investigators, Austin said he had no knowledge "of anybody trying to downplay or rosy up intelligence," according to the report.'

Austin said it was important that he have accurate information. "You're not going to win if you don't have the right information," he said. "So rosying up doesn't help us be successful in this fight."

The intelligence products in question are part of a much larger stream that comes from the battlefield, as well as other intelligence agencies.

The allegations were first raised in a 2015 letter to the Defense Intelligence Agency Inspector General. The letter-writer said senior intelligence leaders imposed a "false narrative" on analysts and analytic leaders that Iraqi forces, with U.S. help, were performing well on the battlefield, while ISIL was struggling.

The complainant also wrote that "the leaders imposed this narrative through many changes, small and large, on a daily basis, the cumulative effect of which was creation of a false narrative."

Investigators found some individuals who agreed with the complainants' allegations or certain parts of them. Some disagreed, often strenuously, while other witnesses had no opinion or knowledge.

The report, an unclassified version of a 542-page document delivered to the command and Congress, lists 29 recommendations to improve the intelligence process and "reduce the risk that allegations such as the ones at issue in this report will arise in the future," said Kathie Scarrah, a spokeswoman for the inspector general. The investigation was one of the most comprehensive in the department's 34-year history, she said.

More than 30 people conducted more than 150 interviews and collected over 17 million documents and files, including about 2 million emails, she said.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.