Reports about terror activity in Iraq have been "grossly thrown to the side" by officials in U.S. Central Command since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, according to a former Army official with the command, in an attempt to paint a rosy picture of the coalition's efforts in the Middle East.
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class William Kotel told the Washington Examiner that he was pushed out of his position after raising concerns about "missing pieces" in reports for Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East. He had attempted to include in his official reports information about an Iraqi target that had allegedly stolen U.S. money from the Central Bank of Iraq. But the intelligence was stripped from his final report at the behest of his superiors, he said.
Since it was first reported that dozens of intelligence analysts have accused Central Command of downplaying information that suggested terrorist groups such as the Islamic State were making strategic gains, five congressional committees have opened investigations into the matter, on top of a probe by the Pentagon's inspector general.
Kotel, who was noncommissioned officer in charge of the Joint Targets Enterprise, said warnings about imminent terror attacks in Iraq were required to be routed through a maze of Pentagon channels, a process that could take weeks, instead of communicated directly with military units in harm's way.
He said the policy of substituting economic or environmental information for terror-related intelligence in reports was never made explicit by Central Command's leadership, but that he and his colleagues had "implied orders" not to report facts on the ground in Iraq.
The problem, Kotel said, is not necessarily that final reports were being edited for political reasons. Instead, it's that key intelligence wasn't allowed in those reports in the first place.
Kotel said it was "really disheartening" when credible intelligence about terror activity was discarded.
"They've spent more money and time trying to push down this intelligence ... than they have actually spending time and effort on real security," he said.
Bridget Serchak, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon's inspector general, declined to answer questions about when the probe was opened or when it would conclude, but said the investigation is underway.
"The investigation will address whether there was any falsification, distortion, delay, suppression, or improper modification of intelligence information; any deviations from appropriate process, procedures, or internal controls regarding the intelligence analysis," Serchak said.
She noted there would be "personal accountability for any misconduct or failure to follow established processes."
Two Senate and three House committees are now investigating the matter as well.
A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, confirmed her committee had met with a whistleblower about the issue.
Senate Armed Services Chairman. John McCain said his committee is investigating the whistleblower's claims as well.
"This committee is disturbed by recent whistleblower allegations that officials at Central Command skewed intelligence assessments to paint an overly rosy picture of conditions on the ground," the Arizona Republican said during a hearing last week.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, told the committee he would "take appropriate action" if the Defense Department's inspector general found evidence of wrongdoing.
"Because the allegations are currently under investigation, it would be premature and inappropriate for me to discuss this matter," Austin said during the hearing. "I cannot speak to the specifics of the allegations."
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has urged the Pentagon to conduct an anonymous survey of intelligence analysts throughout the Defense Department to get a sense of the political pressures those analysts might face.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, two Democrats and two Republicans in the House pressed Pentagon leadership to shield whistleblowers involved in the investigation from retaliation.
Reps. Jackie Speier and Mike Thompson, both Democrats, and Reps. Duncan Hunter and Mike Coffman, both Republicans, signed the letter, which was obtained by the Examiner.
The lawmakers asked the Pentagon to report to Congress any instances of potential retaliation against whistleblowers involved in the complaint.
They pushed Carter to arrange regular briefings on the inspector general's investigation of the intelligence tampering for "interested members" of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Intelligence Committee.
Retaliation against whistleblowers?
Hunter sent another letter to Jon Rymer, Pentagon inspector general, urging the watchdog to look into instances of retaliation against soldiers who may be attempting to speak to Congress on behalf of Sgt. Charles Martland, who is being removed from his post after confronting an Afghan police commander who had kidnapped and raped a young boy.
The Army imposed gag orders on soldiers who wanted to reach out to members of Congress, Hunter said.
But the problem extends beyond Martland's case. The Army has a reputation for silencing whistleblowers, the California Republican wrote in his letter last week.
What's more, the Pentagon inspector general has in the past shared information with the Army that has then been used as fodder against officials who report wrongdoing.
Because some of the whistleblowers who raised concerns about the intelligence reports are from the Army, the congressman is concerned that the military branch could discover the identities of analysts who alerted the inspector general to the tainted intelligence reports and attempt to take action against them.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, chairman of Oversight's National Security Subcommittee, asked Carter last week for more information about the military intelligence reports on the Islamic State's progress.
DeSantis said the oversight committee "is taking these reports very seriously" and vowed to "investigate fully."
Maj. Genieve David, spokesperson for Central Command, said the agency "welcomes" the inspector general review.
"While we cannot comment on the specific investigation cited in the article, we can speak to the process," David said.
She noted security assessments are based on a collection of intelligence from a variety of sources, including from military commanders on the ground and from "key" advisers.
"The multi-source nature of the assessment process purposely guards against any single report or opinion unduly influencing leaders and decision-makers," David said.
She declined to comment on allegations that the Central Command intelligence team focused on Iraq had been pressured to leave certain information out of their reports.
The intense congressional scrutiny of the intelligence reports, especially those that involve the Islamic State, has renewed criticism of the Obama administration's strategy to combat extremism in the Middle East.
Lawmakers are escalating their calls for a review of the president's plan for the Islamic State, with many voicing concern that airstrikes in Syria and Iraq are not effectively deterring the terrorist organization.