On “60 Minutes” the other day, Steve Kroft asked President Obama whether it was “a complete surprise” that Islamic State militants were able to take control of “so much territory” in Iraq and Syria. The president replied, “[O]ur head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”
What Obama said was, of course, true – Clapper really did recently acknowledge that intelligence agencies underestimated what had been taking place in Syria, as well as Iraqi security forces’ capacity to engage ISIS fighters. But Republicans and much of the media was nevertheless annoyed with the president’s response.
Intelligence officials weren’t exactly thrilled, either.
[B]y pointing to the agencies without mentioning any misjudgments of his own, Mr. Obama left intelligence officials bristling about being made into scapegoats and critics complaining that he was trying to avoid responsibility.
The New York Times quoted one unnamed intelligence official who said, “Some of us were pushing the reporting [on ISIS], but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it. They were preoccupied with other crises.”
Naturally, White House officials deny this, but the broader significance is that the intelligence community is trying to avoid responsibility, while pushing back against the president’s suggestion that agencies underestimated ISIS.
Soon after the NYT piece ran, Foreign Policy published a related item, noting U.S. spies were complaining Monday that the president had “thrown us under the bus,” as one former official put it.
Given the context, I don’t think that’s what Obama did, exactly, but it raises the larger question of what U.S. intelligence agencies missed when it comes to Islamic State militants.
NSA Director Mike Rogers made these remarks at a public event just a few weeks ago:
“If I’m honest with myself, I wish the transition of ISIL from an insurgency to an organization that was now focused on holding ground, territory, the mechanism of governance … in hindsight I wish we had been a little bit – I’ll only speak for me and the NSA – I wish we’d been a little stronger.”
This didn’t seem especially controversial at the time, and it doesn’t seem shocking now, either. More to the point, the comments weren’t Rogers way of shifting blame for political reasons; he was just giving his honest take on recent events.
Look, I can appreciate why the intelligence communities would be on edge about getting blamed for a national security crisis. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that the intelligence agency desperately tried to get the Bush/Cheney administration’s attention before 9/11, the Republican White House largely ignored the warnings, and the agencies were soon after held responsible for an “intelligence failure.”
With this no doubt on the community’s mind, it’s understandable that officials would be sensitive now about the blame game.
But the truth remains that most of the world was surprised by the scope of ISIS gains in Syria, and few expected the Iraqi security forces to give up against a smaller foe. Acknowledging this isn’t necessarily evidence of being thrown under a bus.
Glenn Kessler added, “Clearly there were public warnings by administration officials about the threat posed by the Islamic State. Yet at the same time, two senior intelligence officials have expressed regret at the quality of intelligence on the terrorist group.”