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The Middle East Aflame
Why Didn't the U.S. Intelligence Services See ISIS Coming?

When the Obama Administration was blindsided by Maliki’s coup in Iraq last night, it was only the latest in a string of intelligence failures dating back to the founding of ISIS. As a probing report in the Wall Street Journal demonstrates, U.S. intelligence services have consistently failed to take the group’s measure since its formation:

The president acknowledged Saturday that U.S. spies and policy makers had underestimated the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL. “There is no doubt that their advance, their movement over the last several months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates, and I think the expectations of policy makers both in and outside of Iraq,” he said.

The inability of U.S. spy agencies to provide details about the timing of Islamic State offensives or their likelihood of success has touched off debate among U.S. national-security officials about whether intelligence on the group has been adequate.

The struggle to understand the capabilities of the group reflects the difficulty of collecting detailed intelligence on its internal planning. “Collection is tough,” one senior U.S. official acknowledged.

These intelligence failures could be the result of operational problems, or the result of higher-level officials insulating the White House from bad news. Either way, the intelligence system is clearly broken—and either way, the buck stops on President Obama’s desk. Whether or not the Administration gets more deeply involved in the Middle East now, restoring a working intelligence system has to be a top priority.

To some extent, the Journal‘s sources make clear, the intelligence failure in the Middle East is one more cost of the hasty withdrawal from Iraq:

A decline in U.S. spy resources after the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in 2011 has limited American intelligence capability in the region. In some cases, intelligence officials have been frustrated by the Obama administration’s reluctance to get more involved in Iraq and Syria, current and former U.S. officials said.

From the Iraq withdrawal to our vacillations on the Syrian civl war and the “redline”, the U.S. has racked up a number of debts in the region that all seem to be coming due at once.

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  • Pete

    The U.S. intelligence community is rather incompetent. It is excellent at spending money on itself, but as to alerting policy makers as to coming events in the world, forget about it.

  • Andrew Allison

    Correction: only the latest in a string of intelligence failures dating back to 9/11. The Intelligence Services have been shown to be utterly incompetent and in need of a major shakeup. The only thing they seem to be good at is spying on Congress and law-abiding US citizens.

    • B-Sabre

      They still missed the tunnels, though. Even though Hamas was supposedly putting 40% of the budget into (literal) holes in the ground.

      • Andrew Allison

        Actually, Israel was well aware of the tunneling, and has been working on detection measures. You may know there are tunnels, but until the exit is opened just before an attack, they’re quite hard to locate. Fortunately for Israel, the entrances are easier to find, which is probably the main reason for the incursion into Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel seems to be doing a pretty good job of picking of the Hamas leadership. FWIW, Israel claims to have evidence that almost half the “civilian” casualties in Gaze were in fact militia, something which the media has largely chosen not to report.

  • Thirdsyphon

    I’d say this is the latest in a string of intelligence failures dating back to the Cold War. The CIA somehow failed to predict the collapse of the USSR when even Yakov Smirnov knew it was coming.

  • CGoodMT

    I think you have a bad link in your article, the link that should go to the Wall Street Journal just goes to a page on the American Interest’s site that says your search didn’t have any results. I think is the article you’re referencing.

  • MicahStone

    “Why Didn’t the U.S. Intelligence Services See ISIS Coming?”
    …seriously? you’re actually wondering why fed govt bureauweenies f-ed-up-AGAIN???? Have you been living in a cave? Or are you part of the corrupt socialist media (same thing)?

  • David Heller

    Anyone who believes the Intelligence Community didn’t see this coming, and didn’t warn the White House, is simply naive and unschooled. I worked in the community for over 20 years, and I assure you that the intelligence community had eyes on this target from the beginning.

    Intelligence is only useful, if the intended audience listens and comprehends.

    The Obama White House has proven time-and-time-again, that liberal group-think dominates in spades. Samantha Powers, Susan Rice, John Kerry, and of course that ole Presidential Campaign Van Driver (now Deputy National Security Advisor) Ben Rhodes; each and everyone second-raters at best. and incompetents to boot.

    Obama and his team see only what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and fight reality every day of the week.

    That they choose to throw the intelligence community under-the-bus to make up for their blinders, is a given.

    This administration is simply thoughtless, and clueless in regard to international affairs, and they like it that way. Expect more disasters on this Presidents Watch. It’s a given that they’re coming.

    • jeburke

      You have that right. And it’s not just the IC that has been sounding warnings every step of the way, at least for 18 months. Here, for example, is one typical story from May 2013 about the Syrian radicals’ connections to Iraq — and specifically to al Qaeda in Iraq.

      A bit of Googling shows wide reporting about the radical success in Syria, the rise of ISIS to the forefront, and its operating inside Iraq since the outset of 2014. And let’s not forget that ISIS took control of Fallujah and most of Anbar six months ago!

      The IC knew. The Administrstion knew. We all knew. But Obama chose to do nothing. Now, the White House needs a scapegoat.

    • Duperray

      I appreciate your point, politicians listen at only those providing them “news” in line with their ideology. And if something went wrong, the Intelligence is faulty, obvious !
      I have little confidence about President’ herd of counsellors, but I find strange that US knows so “little” from permanent Middel East mess and so “much” about Malaysion plane crash…
      In my opinion, the “so little” about Middel East is deliberate and everything seems to have been achieved to allow these extremists to develop up to ISIS. Not the last fact is recent 5,000 US missiles supply to Irak government, which, as usual, will fall in ISIS hands within a couple of weeks…..

  • gabrielsyme

    One failing of the White House that cannot be put on the intelligence community is the failure to ensure that the Kurdish peshmurga were adequately supplied and armed. Reports have the peshmurga forced to retreat due to being outgunned when they did have ammunition and frequently running out of ammunition. Given that the Kurds are the most reliable ally the West has in the region, and that they’ve been starved for funds from the central government, this failure to support the peshmurga is incompetence of the highest order.

  • lukelea

    Do we have any reliable “intelligence” about what is going on in these Arab societies once the strong man is overturned?

    • Andrew Allison

      That question has been answered by history, the answer is chaos. The more important question is, do we have any intelligence in the current Administration?

  • lukelea

    “From the Iraq withdrawal to our vacillations on the Syrian civl war and the “redline”, the U.S. has racked up a number of debts in the region that all seem to be coming due at once.”

    Let’s put WRM in charge and see how he does. Meanwhile I liked the headline of this piece by foreign policy “expert” David Stockman: Washington Opened The Gates Of Hell In Iraq: Now Come The Furies

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