Official: Iraq turmoil not an ‘intelligence failure’

The U.S. intelligence community Monday pushed back at reports that the White House was not warned about the growing strength of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ahead of the group’s recent offensive.

“The job of the Intelligence Community is to warn. We did that," said a U.S. intelligence official. "In short, this was not U.S. intelligence failure. It was an Iraqi military failure.”

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Reports suggested that the White House was caught off-guard last week by the Islamic State’s rapid advance on Erbil, a city in northern Iraq where the U.S. has a consulate and joint operations center

After Kurdish Peshmerga forces found themselves outgunned, President Obama ordered U.S. airstrikes there and humanitarian drops to stranded Iraqi refugees. 

Obama said on Saturday that ISIS's "movement over the last several months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates." 

U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal in a report published Monday that American intelligence agencies "often have underestimated the group's ability to make rapid operational gains." 

An intelligence official, though, pushed back against that characterization, saying that analysts have been closely tracking ISIS and its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, for years. 

"Throughout the past year, the Intelligence Community has repeatedly warned that ISIL was on the march, gaining strength and picking up growing Sunni support, while the Iraqi Security Forces looked vulnerable," the official said, using ISIS's alternative name, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. 

Although their reports are classified to the public, intelligence agencies’ assessments are shared with the White House and members of Congress.

The official said intelligence analysts have even tracked how ISIS exploited political divisions in Iraq’s Sunni community, helping the group in June take over Iraq’s second largest city, Sunni-dominant Mosul.

"Among other things, analysts reported on how ISIL has exploited Sunni political discord, uneven Iraqi counter-terrorism pressure, and the Syrian conflict to strengthen its operational capacity and intensify the threat to the Iraqi Government,” the official said. “Further, they reported on ISIL’s efforts to spark uprisings in areas with substantial Sunni populations.”

The official said if there was a surprise, it was in how quickly Iraqi forces fell apart before the shooting started, in light of the Pentagon’s efforts to train and equip Iraqi local security forces for more than a decade.

"The ‘will to fight’ is inherently difficult to assess," said Office of the Director of National Intelligence spokesman Jeffrey Anchukaitis.

"Analysts must make assessments based on perceptions of command and control, leadership abilities, quality of experience and discipline under fire — none of which can be understood with certainty until the first shots are fired," he said.