Barack Obama’s intelligence chief is said to be in frequent and unusual contact with a military intelligence officer at the center of a growing scandal over rosy portrayals of the war against the Islamic State, the Guardian has learned.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, is said to talk nearly every day with the head of US Central Command’s intelligence wing, Army Brigadier General Steven Grove – “which is highly, highly unusual”, according to a former intelligence official.
Grove is said to be implicated in a Pentagon inquiry into manipulated war intelligence.
In communications, Clapper, who is far more senior than Grove, is said to tell Grove how the war looks from his vantage point, and question Grove about Central Command’s assessments. Such a situation could place inherent pressure on a subordinate, sources said.
Knowledgeable former officials are doubtful that Clapper directly intends to manipulate intelligence. And they do not say that the director of national intelligence – who apologized to his Senate overseers in 2013 for publicly misleading Congress on the scope of domestic surveillance – ordered Grove or anyone else to change the command’s assessment of the war.
But one former intelligence official said Clapper “has to be careful of the Cheney effect, going over to the CIA and how does that affect people” – a reference to pressure felt by CIA analysts before the 2003 Iraq invasion to portray Saddam Hussein as posing a more dire threat than he actually did, following then Vice-President Dick Cheney’s direct interaction with far more junior analysts and officials.
“He can be manipulative,” a former senior defense official said of Clapper. For Clapper as a senior US intelligence officer with access to assessments across the 16 US intelligence agencies to query Grove, the Central Command intelligence chief, the ex-official said, “something’s wrong”.
Clapper’s calls, knowledgeable sources speaking on condition of anonymity said, placed Grove in a difficult bureaucratic position: between the nominal leader of the entire US intelligence apparatus and his lower-level analysts, several of whom consider the year-long war against Isis to be in dire straits.
Grove and his civilian deputy, Greg Ryckman, are said to be the sources of dissatisfaction among analysts within Central Command, where an internal controversy about integrity in intelligence has now sparked an official inquiry by the Pentagon inspector general.
More than 50 intelligence analysts, both those within Central Command and their seconded Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) colleagues, have registered complaints about manipulated or skewed data, the Daily Beast reported on Wednesday. Analysts object to internal portrayals, said to come ultimately from Grove and Ryckman, of a war proceeding better than Isis’s persistent hold over large swaths of Iraq and Syria suggests. The existence of the Pentagon inquiry was first reported last month by the New York Times.
Some of those skewed and upbeat assessments have reportedly been delivered to Barack Obama. The White House has frequently defended its “Iraq first” strategy; one source interviewed by the Guardian said Obama aides were not receptive to hearing “the narrative that Isis is winning”.