The CIA failed to provide adequate warning of the recent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant military incursion into Iraq despite having a significant presence of agency officers in the country, according to U.S. officials and security analysts.
Critics of the agency said the intelligence failure was made worse by a failure of the Obama administration to recognize the threat posed to the country by the ISIL, which last week renamed itself simply the Islamic State (IS) and declared its captured territory in Syria and Iraq is now a “caliphate.”
The so-called caliphate region is under harsh Islamic law and led by IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as its “caliph” or Islamic leader.
“This is an absolute intelligence failure on the part of the CIA,” said Bill Cowan, a former Special Forces officer who worked until recently as a contractor in Iraq.
During U.S. military operations in Iraq, military intelligence agencies set up robust spying—both human and electronic—throughout Iraq that provided a clear picture of the insurgents, including the former Saddam Hussein military officials who currently are a major component of the IS operation.
However, with the Obama administration’s decision to pull out all troops, the military intelligence coverage was removed at the end of 2011.
“With all military intel out of the picture, the CIA takes primary responsibility for HUMINT activities in Iraq. Where were they? No interaction with tribal leaders who probably watched the build up? No interaction with the [northern Kurdish] Peshmerga? The agency isn't on the radar screen, but they should be.”
A Kurdish security official with the regional government in northern Iraq said intelligence on key figures in the terrorist group, including the locations of IS training camps and the movement of vehicle convoys from Syria was provided to both Baghdad and western intelligence agencies.
“It all fell on deaf ears," said Rooz Bahjay, the security official. "The west failed to act, and now it's failing to react. The longer they wait, the more people are going to be killed.”
Cowan said the failure to provide warning and alert in advance of the incursion, which began in early June, made it impossible to take steps that could have blunted the advance, which currently controls major cities in central Iraq and at least one oil field, failure that will produce dire strategic consequences for the United States and states in region.
The CIA denied it is to blame for any intelligence failure on Iraq. “Anyone who has had access to and actually read the full extent of CIA intelligence products on ISIL and Iraq should not have been surprised by the current situation,” CIA spokesman Christopher White when asked about whether the agency was guilty of an intelligence failure.
A U.S. intelligence official did not directly state whether CIA or other spy agencies provided advance word of the IS invasion. However, the official said IS was tracked for years and “strategic warning” of its growing strength and increasing threat to Iraq were reported.
The official also said policymakers were warned about difficulties within the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. Several divisions of Iraqi troops fled during the IS incursion.
The statement is contradicted by remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry who said collapse of Iraqi security forces was a surprise.
“In the end, the Iraqis are responsible for their defense, and nobody expected wholesale desertion and wholesale betrayal, in a sense, by some leaders who literally either signed up with the guys who came in, or walked away from their posts and put on their civilian clothes,” Kerry told Fox News June 24. “No, nobody expected that. That's absolutely correct.”
A senior intelligence official who briefed some reporters last week acknowledged shortcomings with intelligence on Iraq, according to Associated Press. The official said “a lot of the [intelligence] collection that we were receiving diminished significantly following the U.S. withdrawal in Iraq in 2011, when we lost some of the ‘boots on the ground' view of what was going on.”
The official also revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies were unable to determine whether IS took over Iraq’s largest oil refinery recently, and said that the main source for U.S. intelligence analysts on Iraq were Facebook and Twitter postings.
Former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht said the problem for the CIA in Iraq is that it was unable to operate without military support in the country.
“The CIA cannot operate beyond the lines established by the U.S. military,” Gerecht said.
For example, CIA coverage of internal Afghan politics during the Soviet-Afghan war was “mediocre,” he said, noting that with rare exceptions the terrain was regarded as too dangerous for direct case officer observation.
“Iraq is much more dangerous than Afghanistan was,” Gerecht said. “The CIA just doesn't have the muscle to undertake this type of work.”
Additionally, foreign intelligence reporting inevitably follows the spirit of the time. “If the United States is perceived as weak and incapable of intervening, then its attractiveness diminishes,” Gerecht said. “It’s harder to find people who will cooperate, harder to find means of verifying what is collected. There is just no intel substitute for boots on the ground.”
Kenneth deGraffenreid, former White House intelligence adviser during the Reagan administration, said part of the problem with the CIA is that its clandestine service is not capable of conducting the kind of secret work needed for learning the plans and activities of groups such as IS.
“What is the purpose of having a clandestine intelligence service if they can’t do this kind of work?” deGraffenreid said, adding that the CIA seems more interested in conducting drone strikes than in spying on enemies.
“You don’t need to be spending $100 billion a year on a massive bureaucracy for that,” he said.
After President Obama ordered all troops out of Iraq, the CIA should have continued aggressive collection of intelligence there, but appears to have scaled back its program, deGraffenreid said.
“Maybe we need to go back to a much smaller intelligence service that does clandestine collection by penetrating threatening groups that are arrayed against us around the world,” he said.
During the Iraq war, the CIA station in Baghdad was the largest in the world, with hundreds of operatives and analysts based in Baghdad’s protected green zone.
After the U.S. pullout at the end of 2011, the CIA sharply cut back on its presence. The agency currently operates a large station in Baghdad and until recently a smaller outpost in Mosul, the second largest city that was taken over by IS in the recent incursion.
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist and professor at the Marine Corps University, said the intelligence failure was partly a result of politicization of intelligence.
“The fundamental failure is a result of politics infecting intelligence analysis,” Gorka said.
“This administration is ideologically wedded to the narrative that Afghanistan was the ‘good’ war and Iraq the ‘bad’ war since that is the platform that got the president elected originally,” he said. “As a result Iraq, and events occurring inside Iraq, we're not allowed to be important.”
Gorka also said another problem is the White House’s limiting its anti-terrorism policies to a single organization—al Qaeda—and not the ideology of jihad and its adherents that has prevented accurate understanding of the threat.
“As a result, the [intelligence community] is being blindsided by a newer and even more deadly jihadi group like ISIS was a given,” Gorka said.
Both the Senate and House intelligence oversight committees are not looking into the CIA failure in Iraq.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who is a frequent defender of intelligence agencies from its critics, does not believe Iraq was an intelligence failure.
Rogers said on CBS News June 22 that the ISIL attack was carried out by the Syria and Iraq al Qaeda offshoot, along with former soldiers and leaders from Saddam Hussein’s military along with Sunni tribal leaders.
Rogers said the attackers had “pooled up for months and really years to get ready for this before they launched this attack.”
"This was not an intelligence failure," he has said, according to the Associated Press. "This was a policy failure."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he did not believe Iraq was an intelligence failure.
“The intelligence community makes its fair share of mistakes and I am the first to criticize them when they do,” Chambliss said in Senate floor remarks June 19.
“But these recent events, including the resurgence of ISIL, are not an intelligence failure. They are policy and leadership failures,” he said.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said he did not know if Iraq was an intelligence failure and suggested that the Obama administration’s policy of playing down the terrorist threat may have impacted intelligence agencies.
“I think there's a real possibility that [intelligence on an IS attack] didn't track with the narrative that we've got the bin Laden terrorism problem solved, and the narrative that says Benghazi wasn't a terrorist attack,” Cheney said on PBS June 25.
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIL “will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.”
“However, its ability to hold territory will depend on the group’s resources, local support, as well as the responses of ISF and other opposition groups in Syria,” Flynn said in testimony.
Two and a half months later, Flynn and his deputy reportedly were forced out of DIA in a dispute with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.