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Republican House report says U.S. military manipulated intelligence on Islamic State

Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III, former head of U.S. Central Command, testifies in September before the Senate Armed Services Committee about military operations against Islamic State.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

A Republican House task force investigating intelligence manipulation in the war against Islamic State has concluded that the Pentagon’s Central Command frequently provided a rosier depiction of progress than was warranted.

The command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, produced intelligence reports in 2014 and 2015 that were “consistently more positive” about the war than assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies, according to an initial report released Thursday.

The 17-page document does not suggest any effort by the White House to manipulate intelligence, as some critics had charged. But it is sharply critical of the former head of Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who retired in April.

The report describes a “toxic” leadership environment under Austin. It said 40% of intelligence analysts interviewed felt senior commanders had attempted to distort or suppress their analysis.

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“According to multiple interviewees, operational reporting was used as a justification to alter or ‘soften’ an analytic product so it would cast U.S. efforts in a more positive light,” the report said.

The report was produced jointly by the Republican-led House Intelligence, Armed Services and Appropriations committees. It said their inquiry is continuing.

Intelligence products “approved by senior CENTCOM leaders typically provided a more positive depiction of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts than was warranted by facts on the ground and were consistently more positive than analysis produced by other elements of the intelligence community,” the report found.

The probe was launched in December after complaints surfaced from military analysts who said their reports on progress in the war were being altered.

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The Defense Department’s inspector general also is investigating the complaints, but the office has not yet issued any findings.

“What happened at CENTCOM is unacceptable — our war fighters suffer when bad analysis is presented to senior policymakers,” said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who sits on the Appropriations Committee. “We must continue our efforts until we fix it.”

The optimistic internal reports and public assessments began appearing in mid-2014 after Gen. James Mattis, the previous head of Central Command, had retired, the report said.

“Many CENTCOM press releases, public statements and congressional testimonies were also significantly more positive than actual events,” the report said.

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Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a Central Command spokesman, said “we appreciate the independent oversight provided,” adding that the command will review the findings, but will refrain from comment until it is completed.

The White House and Pentagon have regularly announced military gains against Islamic State since U.S.-led airstrikes began two years ago in Iraq and Syria.

Since then, the U.S.-led coalition has launched more than 10,800 airstrikes and has backed ground offensives against the militants, pushing them out of large parts of the territory they initially had seized, including several major cities.

The Pentagon also has expanded operations into Libya, where teams of U.S. special forces are assisting Libyan government troops seeking to eliminate the militants from their stronghold in Sirte.

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At least in public, President Obama has sought to walk the line between praising the military for the steady progress and cautioning about the dangers ahead as the terrorist group urges followers to launch attacks overseas.

“ISIL turns out not to be invincible,” Obama told reporters at the Pentagon on Aug. 4, using an acronym for Islamic State. “They’re, in fact, inevitably going to be defeated.

“But we do recognize, at the same time, that the situation is complex, and this cannot be solved by military force alone.”

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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Twitter: @wjhenn

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