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Connecting the Dots in Obama’s Intelligence Scandal

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The Debate

Connecting the Dots in Obama’s Intelligence Scandal

An emerging scandal exemplifies a long-running critique of Obama’s foreign policy.

Connecting the Dots in Obama’s Intelligence Scandal
Credit: Official White House Photo

According to the Daily Beast (here and here) and the New York Times, some 50 intelligence analysts posted with U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, have formally complained that their superiors altered assessments about the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in order to adhere more closely with the Obama administration’s public line that the military campaign against these groups is progressing well.

There is, of course, a sad irony that a White House filled with people who frequently charge the George W. Bush administration with manipulating intelligence on the region now stand accused of the same thing. Beyond this, however, the emerging scandal exemplifies a long-running critique about Obama’s approach to foreign policy – that his national security inner team is excessively focused on the dictates of domestic politics and is not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news.

This charge is voiced even by those who are not among the administration’s conservative critics. Veteran journalist James Mann, for example, noted in his 2012 book The Obamians that “The Obama White House didn’t like independent actors or internal discord. It also didn’t like to be challenged, certainly not in public, and not on the foreign policy issues of greatest sensitivity for Obama.” Similarly, David Rothkopf, editor and CEO of the Foreign Policy Group, observed a few years ago that the Obama White House:

…provides an object lesson in how, when too many staffers have excessive influence, political calculations often trump good policy choices. When an inner circle maintains too tight a stranglehold over the president’s time and attention, too few views come into play.

Former administration officials have amplified these views. Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s CIA director and Defense Secretary, wrote in his recent memoir that the president’s reliance on senior White House staffers was so heavy that Cabinet members were largely frozen out of the policy formulation and implementation process. Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library a year ago, he remarked:

Because of that centralization of authority at the White House, there are too few voices that are being heard … You go there, and by the time you get to the White House, the staff has already decided, or tried to influence, what the direction should be.

Vali Nasr, who worked on Af-Pak issues in the first term, offered a scathing critique of policy-making in his 2013 book, The Dispensable Nation. According to Nasr, a phalanx of gatekeepers — or as he calls them, a “Berlin Wall of staffers” — operates in the White House, shielding “Obama from any option or idea they did not want him to consider.”  He added:

[Furthermore,] the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans.

Likewise, Rosa Brooks, who served as a political appointee in the Pentagon’s policy shop in Obama’s first term, warned that the White House national security apparatus was a “tiny fiefdom” run by a camarilla of “young and untried campaign aides” and “even Cabinet-level officials often struggle to get direct access to the president.” She charged that “dissenting voices are regularly shut out, along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights.”

In Brooks’ view, “shallow discussions and poor decisions” are all but guaranteed by the procedural dysfunctions. The situation was so dysfunctional she recommended that Obama:

…create internal ‘red teams,’ tasked with pointing out the dangers and flaws of the policy approaches recommended by his senior staff — and he should require his staff to listen and respond to critics, instead of just repeating administration talking points.

In a subsequent piece, Brooks called attention to the growing tensions between President Obama and his top military advisers.  She quoted one retired senior general as saying: “I don’t understand the process by which the White House is making strategic or foreign-policy decisions.…There’s an appearance of consultation, but you know you won’t be listened to.”

In 2013, the White House unceremoniously ousted Gen. James N. Mattis as CENTCOM head, in part because he questioned the wisdom of administration policy on Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Commenting on the event, Thomas E. Ricks, a defense journalist generally sympathetic to the administration, exclaimed that “The message the Obama Administration is sending, intentionally or not, is that it doesn’t like tough, smart, skeptical generals who speak candidly to their civilian superiors.”

The example made of Mattis helps explain the current situation at CENTCOM. Per the Daily Beast, many of the command’s intelligence analysts describe a work climate in which “they could not give a candid assessment of the situation in Iraq and Syria. Some felt it was a product of commanders protecting their career advancement by putting the best spin on the war” [emphasis added].

Nor is the CENTCOM affair an isolated event. The administration has reportedly blocked wide access within the intelligence community to the extensive cache of documents captured during the May 2011 Osama bin Laden raid, fearing they contradict the White House’s preferred narrative regarding the global jihadist threat. As a result, only a fraction of the documents have been fully analyzed. Indeed, according to a former member of the CENTCOM intelligence team, a group of CENTCOM analysts was given permission by the Director of National Intelligence to review the trove in late spring 2012, as President Obama’s re-election effort revved up, only to have the National Security Council abruptly intervene and overturn the decision.

The president’s disdain for dissenting views and alternative perspectives was on full display in his recent press conferences. In early October 2015, he reproached critics of his Syria policy, even going as far as seeming to lump his previous Secretary of State among the purveyors of “half-backed ideas” and “a bunch of mumbo jumbo.” And a few weeks ago – following the bombing of a Russian airliner, suicide attacks in Beirut, and the Paris terrorist attacks – the president took umbrage at critics who “want to pop off” on his approach to combating the Islamic State even though leading Democrats, his principal military advisor, and his CIA director are among those asserting his strategy is not working.

Soon after his November 2008 election, then President-Elect Obama declared:

The reality is that sometimes policymaking in Washington can become too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking–and those who serve in Washington don’t always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working for people, and which aren’t.

Instead of tearing down the walls of the echo chamber, the default tendency with Obama and his administration has been to build them up higher, to the detriment of this nation’s foreign policy.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and former director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy.