Spy Report Spinning Has a Long History

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The Pentagon’s internal watchdog is reportedly investigating whether military officials have "skewed intelligence assessments" about the U.S. effort against ISIS. Above, An aerial view of the Pentagon. Jason Reed JIR/CN/Reuters

My first lesson in how intelligence can be rigged started with a newspaper photograph, 45 years ago. I was sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Da Nang, South Vietnam, which was still a charming former French colonial port city despite the war raging 10 miles away. A rookie spy handler in military intelligence, I would go downtown most mornings, gather up the local newspapers and look for useful bits of information over cups of strong chicory coffee. And so it was one day that I spotted a very familiar face in a photo of anti-government demonstrations in the city. After much squinting, I was sure it was my principal agent, the top guy in the spy ring I was running against communist forces.

It didn't take much investigating to conclude that my agent had divided loyalties. A few weeks later, I made a strong case to Saigon headquarters that the guy was untrustworthy and suggesting we get rid of him. The response: Nothing's wrong, keep up the good work. The message from higher-ups was as blunt as a rock slide: We had to keep showing, against all evidence to the contrary, that things were going swimmingly in our intel ops. Not only that, they told me they were upping the reliability rating of my very questionable agent.

Years later, I learned that a new boss had seen my reports and canned my spy. But I was long gone by then, and I had learned a lot more about how intelligence officials spun--and continue to spin--intelligence to back up wishful thinking about how well a war is going. And that's not counting fabricated reports to get us into a war to start with, from Spain in 1898 ("Remember the Maine") to Vietnam (the 1964 Tonkin Gulf non-incident) to the multiple deceptions on Iraq in 2003.

The latest such case surfaced this week with news, first reported in The New York Times, that the Pentagon's internal watchdog is investigating whether "military officials have skewed intelligence assessments about the United States-led campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State to provide a more optimistic account of progress." That was followed by a Daily Beast report that "senior military and intelligence officials have inappropriately pressured U.S. intelligence analysts" to downplay the strength of the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate and play up the effectiveness of the U.S. air campaign against it.

This is all too familiar.

"Was I surprised? No. Disappointed, yes," says retired Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, who came back from Afghanistan four years ago bitterly disputing the upbeat views of top American commanders on how well the war was going there. After his reports garnered wide attention, military "experts" for the most part heaped abuse on him. I dare say he's been proven right.

Now, any fool can see that the recent pronouncement from retired Army General John Allen, President Barack Obama's special envoy on rounding up regional support for the war, that "ISIS is losing" is ridiculous on its face. The terror group still holds two of Iraq's largest cities and shows no sign that its drive to carve out a permanent state in that country and Syria is flagging. The air war against ISIS, as we predicted last year, will not make much of a difference. The few CIA-trained rebels able to take to the field are undermanned, under-equipped and under-protected from ISIS abductors.

Most Americans seem to understand the U.S. has a very weak hand, given their reported aversion to a more direct U.S. combat role in the war. But back in the crucial, mid-1960s years of the Vietnam War, things were not so clear. Behind the rosy face U.S. commanders were putting on American progress in the war, there was a bitter, behind-closed-doors struggle being fought out between the CIA and the Pentagon over a simple question, almost identical to that asked today about ISIS: How strong is the enemy? Far from being a cloistered, academic dialogue, the answer in 1967 would have life-or-death consequences for hundreds of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese: It would determine whether, after six years of combat, the U.S. had a chance to win and pour more troops into the battle to finish off the communists, or, conversely, accept that the war was an endless stalemate and seek a diplomatic solution.

It hardly needs saying that the Pentagon, with billions of dollars worth of war-fighting budgets, weapons, aircraft, manpower and promotions at stake, wanted to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to soldier on in the Big Muddy. So in the spring of 1967, Lieutenant General Phillip Davidson, the top military intelligence officer in Saigon, decided to fix the problem with a few swipes of white-out and a typewriter: He cut the U.S. estimate of enemy strength in South Vietnam by roughly half its manpower, stripping 120,000 part-time communist fighters from the count. Presto: On paper, the U.S. was "winning."

Alone against Davidson was a sandy-haired, 37-year-old Harvard Law School dropout and CIA analyst by the name of Samuel A. Adams. A distant relative of the Revolutionary War firebrand, Adams fought back on paper and in endless meetings, arguing, accurately, that the communist irregulars Davidson wanted to eliminate were local, pro-communist villagers responsible for inflicting fully a third of the casualties on U.S. troops via road mines (today called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs).

The numbers battle raged on for months, until finally, in September 1967, the CIA's top Vietnam "expert," George Carver, "basically...caved in," Adams said later, "to military demands." The American public was led to believe that the U.S. was winning--an illusion brutally shattered only a few months later, when the communists unleashed a simultaneous, countrywide attack on hundreds of towns, cities and the capital, Saigon, even managing to fight their way into the U.S. embassy grounds, in the infamous Tet Offensive. Americans' support for the war cratered.

Today, somewhere in the bowels of U.S. intelligence, there are more Samuel Adamses. Internal dissent over the official pronouncements that the war against the Islamic State is going well is bubbling over. Intelligence analysts are telling reporters that their bosses are spiking their "too pessimistic" conclusions about the efficacy of the U.S.bombing campaign and the prospects for rebuilding the shattered Iraqi army into fighting form.

"The phrase I use is the politicization of the intelligence community," said retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who has scores to settle with the Obama administration after being relieved of his post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency last year. "That's here," he told the Daily Beast. "And it's dangerous."

Now, staying upbeat about dire circumstances on the battlefield is one thing: In the darkest days of World War II, with the Germans and Japanese looking unbeatable, Roosevelt and Churchill proved themselves great leaders because they gave their people hope.

But when top-down pressure drives intelligence officials to give the president of the United States--and the public--souped-up reports, as the news accounts suggest?

That's just criminal. That can get people killed.

Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk for Newsweek from Washington. You can contact him somewhat securely via spytalk@hushmail.com.

Spy Report Spinning Has a Long History | Opinion