The rise of the Islamic State* has engendered a full-blown foreign policy crisis in Washington, DC. After more than three years of an extended “Mission Accomplished” victory lap following the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011, the Obama White House has hit the wall with the sudden appearance of the decapitating jihadists of the Islamic State, who now control substantial chunks of both Syria and Iraq and a lot of oil to boot.
The September 2012 disaster at Benghazi ought to have been a wake-up call that Salafi jihadism was down but not out, and still bent on killing Americans, but wasn’t. Now the administration is confronted with a major problem that it’s not exactly been quick to deal with; I’ve explained how the Islamic State can be defeated, but the White House doesn’t seem to be in any big rush to do that. Moreover, Obama’s policy to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State is riddled with contradictions, thanks largely to the confusion-masquerading-as-strategy that has plagued Obama’s Middle East forays since the beginning of his presidency, and nowhere more than Syria.
Not surprisingly, Obama has played defense with the media and commentariat about all this, and that came to a head Sunday in a TV interview with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes. Kroft pitched Obama a lot of softballs, some of which the president handled better than others, but it was the Commander-in-Chief’s comments on the Intelligence Community (IC) that have garnered the most attention, especially this part:
Steve Kroft: How did [ISIL] end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?
President Obama: Well I think, our head of the Intelligence Community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.
Steve Kroft: I mean, he didn’t say that, just say that, we underestimated ISIL. He said, we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.
President Obama: That’s true. That’s absolutely true.
To anyone even passingly acquainted with inside-Beltway politics, the president just blamed the IC for the ISIL debacle, make no mistake about it. A couple weeks back, Jim Clapper gave an interview to David Ignatius, the doyen of Washington, DC intelligence reporters, in which he indicated that he felt the IC indeed had underestimated ISIL’s “will to fight,” while overestimating the battle-worthiness of Iraq’s U.S.-built military, drawing an analogy to flawed intelligence assessments of the Viet Cong, a war that Clapper participated in as a junior intelligence officer. But Clapper did not say that the IC got the rise of ISIL wrong, per se, and there is the critical rub.
Spies don’t take kindly to being thrown under the bus by the Commander-in-Chief, particularly on national television, and within hours the leaks began to flow, and it was soon apparent that Obama had misspoken, to be charitable. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” explained a former IC insider to Eli Lake of The Daily Beast.
It soon emerged that three top administration officials had explicitly warned about the rise of ISIL since the fall of 2013, to no apparent effect on the White House. One of them was Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, the outspoken former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who minced few words about his views on the rising ISIL threat. Perhaps not coincidentally, Flynn was ousted at DIA this summer in a rather public fashion, a defenestration that cannot look very wise in retrospect.
To make matters worse, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, stated Monday that actually the IC had been warning the White House about the emergence of ISIL as a serious threat in Iraq and Syria for “over a year,” to no effect. “This was not an Intelligence Community failure, but a failure by policy makers to confront the threat,” Rogers explained, adding that the incompetence of the Iraqi military, which fell apart before ISIL, was well known to anybody in Washington, DC who cared to know — clearly implying that the White House did not.
It has since emerged that President Obama has not exactly been paying attention to intelligence. This has been rumored for years, but now we have some data. Every president gets a tailor-made President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a very closely held and highly classified document (for the background of the PDB this is a good primer). It turns out that, since becoming Commander-in-Chief, Obama’s overall attendance rate at his PDB is only 42.4 percent, while in his second term so far it’s lower, 41.3 percent. Moreover, in 2014, Obama has attended his PDB only 37.5 percent of the time.
Presidential interest in intelligence varies considerably, with some occupants of the Oval Office taking a hands-on approach to secret matters, while some are more aloof, but it’s safe to say that an attendance rate of hardly more than one-third at a time of crisis, with the world spiraling out of control between Ukraine and ISIL, to cite only the most pressing security problems today, is difficult to explain.
It’s easy for Obama’s defenders to dismiss this as mere partisanship, but it’s not. I’ve long defended Obama against unfair and sometimes unseemly charges from the Right about his alleged anti-military attitudes or supposed lack of interest in security issues. That said, we need to get to the bottom of this, given the extent of the strategic debacle surrounding the rise of ISIL. Partisanship is not the issue here. Indeed, the analytic element of the CIA that produces the PDB, the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), is pretty much the NPR demographic, so efforts to dismiss this issue as more right-wing posturing are wide of the mark.
Obama has created a scandal where one did not need to exist, for reasons I cannot fathom. Picking a fight with the IC is a very bad idea, as anybody acquainted with how Washington, DC, works is well aware. When “thrown under the bus” by any White House, the spooks retaliate with leaks that are often highly damaging to the administration; this is a venerable game inside the Beltway that wise politicians avoid as a lose-lose situation. This about turf, not ideology: ask George W. Bush what happened to his plans for war with Iran once the IC, led by CIA, put out its dovish 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Tehran’s nuclear program, escorted by a barrage of anti-White House leaks.
The IC is a behemoth of seventeen different — and sometimes mutually hostile — agencies residing in six different cabinet departments. Turf issues matter, and the addition of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI — that’s Clapper) in the aftermath of 9/11 has added another layer of bureaucracy rather than fix fundamental problems with the American intelligence model, some of which are caused by its gargantuan size rather than mismanagement. There was debate inside the IC about the rise of ISIL, and Obama’s opening the IC’s performance on this issue to public scrutiny on national television means that we have to get to the bottom of this.
Obvious questions present themselves. How often did Obama really get his intelligence briefings? What did those PDBs say about ISIL? Did Obama or his key staffers interact with any IC analysts on the ISIL matter? What role (if any) did differing views between agencies, especially CIA and DIA, impact the information the White House was getting? Above all, what was the role of the National Security Council and its director, Susan Rice, in the failure to anticipate the rise of ISIL, despite multiple intelligence warnings?
We need an investigation on a bi-partisan basis, eschewing politics-as-usual, just like the 9/11 Commission, to get to the bottom of this. The appearance of ISIL is the biggest terrorism story since the 9/11 attacks, and the American people deserve answers, given the seriousness of the threat to the United States and our allies posed by the murderous Islamic State.
I have no doubt that the intelligence backstory to this matter will turn about to be complicated, between conflicting raw intelligence and the usual bureaucratic cat-fights between agencies, but the essence of this scandal is simple. The White House chose to repackage a major policy failure as an intelligence failure and the spooks — who have not been happy about Obama’s cavalier attitude towards intelligence, neither did they appreciate how slow the president was to come to the IC’s defense during the Snowden debacle last year — took umbrage and are pushing back with leaks. More, and worse, leaks are coming; this is how DC works. The IC are not the people to throw under the bus if a White House wants smooth sailing. How Obama and his staffers did not seem to know this almost six years into this administration is the only real mystery in this story.
*Some call it ISIS, the administration prefers ISIL, but if you want to be pedantic Da’ish (for al-Dawlah al-Islamiyah) is correct.