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Senators confront military on reports of altered ISIS intelligence

Senators confront military on reports of altered ISIS intelligence
© Greg Nash

Senators on Wednesday vowed to get to the bottom of allegations that the U.S. military has been skewing intelligence assessments about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"I consider this extremely grave — a grave issue, because if we don't have reliable intelligence, as policymakers, and if the president doesn't have reliable intelligence, we can't make good policy," Sen. Angus KingAngus KingCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Biden struggles to detail post-withdrawal Afghanistan plans Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle MORE (I-Maine) told Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), at an Armed Services Committee hearing. 

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"And this keeps happening. I mean, this goes back to the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the Iraq War, and these allegation are extremely serious," added King, who is also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Two Senate committees — Armed Services and Intelligence — are investigating the allegations that CentCom's intelligence director altered assessments on ISIS and al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, prepared by Defense Intelligence Agency analysts, to suggest the war is going better than it is. 

Members of both committees have interviewed the whistleblower who made the allegations. 

"The committee staff has interviewed the whistleblower and I think that SASC [Senate Armed Services Committee] leadership and Intel leadership will continue to meet with the whistleblower," said Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrBill ending federal unemployment supplement passes North Carolina legislature Burr on 'unusual' Trump endorsement in NC Senate race: 'I can't tell you what motivates him' Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

"All I'm going to say is that we are going to look into it. The chairman and I have discussed it, and we are looking into it very actively," Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHeat wave sparks historically unseasonable wildfires in West Energized Trump probes pose problems for Biden Granholm defends US emissions targets: 'If we don't take action, where are we?' MORE (D-Calif.), ranking member of the committee, told The Hill. 

However, Burr said the committees would wait until the Pentagon inspector general (IG) finishes its investigation before taking any action, while continuing to conduct a "normal oversight role." 

House lawmakers are also looking into the issue.

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzCongress's latest hacking investigation should model its most recent Fox News Audio expands stable of podcasts by adding five new shows The myth of the conservative bestseller MORE (R-Utah) and committee member Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the Pentagon inspector general last week, requesting a briefing from the Pentagon. 

A House Intelligence Committee aide confirmed to The Hill that the panel's staff members participated in a conference call on Friday with the Pentagon IG's office. 

The allegations, and the Pentagon investigation, were first unearthed by The New York Times in July. The Daily Beast reported earlier this month that more than 50 intelligence analysts back the whistleblower’s allegations. 

The Pentagon has downplayed any impact of the potentially altered assessments. 

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook last Thursday told reporters that Carter "does get intelligence from a variety of different sources." 

But Cook also said that Carter has ordered his acting under secretary of Defense for Intelligence to clarify to military commanders that he expects "unvarnished, transparent intelligence."

Gen. Austin said he welcomed the Pentagon's investigation and pledged to take "appropriate actions." However, he added that Centcom has a "robust intelligence enterprise" that relies on a variety of sources, not just intelligence reports.

"There are over 1,200 seasoned intelligence professionals that make up that enterprise, and they do exceptional work," he said.

"I use the assessments that they provide me — together with the inputs that I receive from a variety of sources that include my commanders on the ground who I talk to almost every single day, and I consider this broad range of inputs when making my decisions."

Gen. Austin also said none of the intelligence reports in question have ever been sent directly to President Obama.

But Gen. Austin's remarks did not appear to do much to assuage senators, who are becoming increasingly skeptical of the administration's strategy to defeat and degrade ISIS, more than a year after the U.S. military campaign against the group began.

"It makes me very troubled. I mean, I will say, having been there recently, I think we all kind of have a sense that it's going well in Kurdish areas, and it's going bad pretty much everywhere else," Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineCommunion vote puts spotlight on Hispanic Catholics Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed MORE (D-Va.) told The Hill. 

Austin and Christine Wormuth, under secretary of Defense for Policy, gave sober assessments of the war at the hearing, but still touted "progress."

"With respect to the ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria today, despite some slow movement at the tactical level, we continue to make progress across the battle space in support of the broader U.S. government strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL," Austin said, using a different acronym for ISIS.

"Progress has been slow but steady," Wormuth echoed.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden nominates Cindy McCain as ambassador to UN food agency Meghan McCain defends 'maverick' Sinema from attacks over filibuster stance GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster MORE (R-Ariz.), a strident critic of the administration's efforts against ISIS, scoffed at those assessments. 

"I must say I've been a member of the committee for nearly 30 years and I've never heard testimony like this. Never," he said.

King was also skeptical, asking the Pentagon for a specific list of areas in Iraq and Syria where the U.S. military was succeeding against ISIS. 

"Because, generally, it doesn't look like that. It looks more like a stalemate," he said.