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Was U.S. military intelligence on ISIS skewed?
02:21 - Source: CNN

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Analysts allege that officials are manipulating intelligence to fit the frame that the U.S. is making steady progress against ISIS.

But the tone and substance of assessments of the fight against ISIS, including from the CIA and the military, haven't all been rosy.

Washington CNN  — 

A top U.S. intelligence official confirmed that the Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating complaints that senior officials manipulated intelligence reports to create a more optimistic narrative on the fight against ISIS.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), said Thursday that “the investigation will play itself out” and help “figure out if we did something wrong.”

“We will be better as a result of a very open investigation,” Stewart said in Washington while sitting on a conference panel with the directors of the CIA, NSA and FBI.

The Daily Beast reported earlier in the day that 50 intelligence analysts at U.S. Central Command, some of them officially employed by the DIA, are supporting a complaint lodged by two senior intelligence analysts.

The analysts allege that senior officials are manipulating their intelligence reports to better fit the public frame that the U.S. is making steady progress in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups in the region – resulting in inaccurate information reaching the highest levels of government, including President Barack Obama.

READ: U.S. spy chief: We can catch Iran if it cheats on nuclear deal

Stewart did not comment on the merits of the complaint or the details of the inspector general’s ongoing investigation, but he stressed that intelligence analysis is neither “clean” nor a “science,” but rather more of an “art.”

“When you go through the analytic process, it is a pretty rough-and-tumble debate,” Stewart said. “You have this clash, this tension among the analysts, about what it really means, and at some point at the end of the day someone has to say this is the best judgment of what the data says and present that to our decision-makers.”

Stewart also appeared to dismiss any suggestion that intelligence reports would be altered to fit a certain political frame, insisting that military intelligence officials “take great pride in the idea of speaking truth to power.”

“We don’t serve a president, we serve the president, whoever that is,” Stewart said.

White House and other administration officials in recent months have heartily touted U.S. gains in the fight against ISIS. Retired Gen. John Allen, the top official charged with coordinating the ISIS campaign, claimed in one such characterization in July that the group “is losing.”

But the tone and substance of assessments by intelligence agencies of the fight against ISIS, including from the CIA and the military, haven’t all been rosy.

“The issue against ISIL has reached a phase of what I would describe as tactically stalemated a bit. You know, there haven’t been any dramatic gains on either side,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said Thursday while traveling in Europe, using another acronym for ISIS.

When it came to the long-term future of Syria and Iraq, where ISIS has seized swaths of territory, the intelligence officials at Thursday’s conference – the 2015 Intelligence and National Security Summit – were downright pessimistic.

When asked whether they could imagine a future in which Syria and Iraq could be reconstituted along the lines of their current official borders, the panelists stayed mum.

Stewart, the DIA chief, said he had a “tough time seeing it (Iraq) come back together” and that while the U.S. would “like to see Iraq as an intact state,” he said it would be hard to imagine the Kurds not wanting to preserve the autonomy they’ve gained as the Iraqi central government has faltered in the face of ISIS’s offensive.

“I think the Middle East is going to be seeing change over the next decade or two that is going to make it look unlike it did a generation ago,” CIA Director John Brennan said.

Several conference participants also echoed the comments on the importance of transparency made by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who spoke about NSA leaker Edward Snowden in addressing the forum the day before.

Snowden’s leaks “forced some needed transparency,” Clapper said Wednesday, though he also strongly criticized the “huge damage to our collection capabilities” that Snowden inflicted.

READ: Top intel official: Edward Snowden forced ‘needed transparency’

On Thursday, Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said the investigation into the alleged manipulation of intelligence reports was “healthy.”

“Frankly, I’m more worried about the people who aren’t coming forward,” he said. “We’ve got to create the atmosphere that not only we accept it, but we expect it.”

FBI Director James Comey stressed the importance of government accountability, opening the forum by saying “the American people should be skeptical of government power,” but he also said he is “very concerned that that skepticism has bled over into cynicism.”

But not all topics were on the table for discussion. Brennan flatly refused to discuss the controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server while secretary of state and whether classified information was sent over the unsecured system.

“I am not going to address that here … I am not going to address any aspect of this,” Brennan said, adding that it would be “inappropriate.”

Comey would not comment on the ongoing federal investigation in connection with Clinton’s server but said the FBI would be thoroughly independent in its investigation, calling the FBI “competent, independent” and “honest.”

“We do all of our work that way, and we don’t give a rip about politics,” he said.