Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road in Mosul, Iraq, on June 23.

Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road in Mosul, Iraq, on June 23. AP Photo, File

NSA Says Intelligence on the Islamic State Could Have Been 'Stronger'

The nation’s top spies account for faulty intelligence in Iraq and warn that ‘it could get bad.’ By Patrick Tucker

The nation’s top spies, including the head of the CIA, the NSA, the Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency took the stage Thursday at the Intelligence & National Security Summit to discuss how their respective agencies handled the most important geopolitical event of 2014 -- the rise of the Islamic State.

Adm. Michael Rogers, who oversees the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, said intelligence on the rise of the Islamic State could have been “stronger.”

“If I’m honest with myself, I wish that the transition of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) from an insurgency to an organization that’s also interested in holding ground and territory and the mechanisms of governance… we talked about it, but in hindsight, I wish we had been stronger.”

CIA Director John Brennan defended his agency’s performance on intelligence in Iraq, saying that the CIA had been watching for “many months” how IS was “growing in capability in Fallujah, in these areas, and how they were expanding their reach.”

Brennan said he felt satisfied that he presented Congress with enough information for them to make informed decisions, even if that information was, in some areas, lacking. “I think we teed up the right issues to policy makers,” but added. “You’re never going to get perfect insight into those developments.”

The question becomes, then, what could have made the intelligence gathering operation in Iraq more robust, allowing for better and earlier indication of the Islamic State’s capability? The panelists at the conference were in agreement: spies on the ground. “You have indirect capabilities in terms of intelligence, whether it’s overhead or from your sources. But unless you’re actually there, you’re getting second, third hand intelligence,” Brennan said. In other words, the haste of the U.S. withdrawal in Iraq in 2011 played a causal role in the intelligence community’s myopia.

[Related: How Much of a Threat to the Homeland Is the Islamic State?]

Rogers, too, urged the public and policy to understand that intelligence-gathering capabilities in Iraq saw a significant decline following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in that country. “It’s Iraq of 2014, not Iraq of 2010. Your expectations in terms of what intelligence can generate and the timeliness of your insight needs to be caged to the environment we’re in now. Not necessarily the environment we’ve been used to.”

One of the biggest blind spots, according to the panelists, was the lack of good insight not only into the Islamic State, but into the readiness and state of the Iraqi security forces that the United States had been training and equipping for years. “One of the most difficult things is trying to determine the will to fight. It speaks almost to intent,” Brennan said.

How worried should the U.S. be about the growing numbers of radical Sunnis moving ever closer to Baghdad? Brennan called them a “murderous gang” and described them as “very destabilizing to U.S. interests,” a force that “has to be cauterized immediately and destroyed as quickly as possible.” But he stopped short of saying that the 20,000 to 30,000 people known to be fighting with IS presented a clear and direct threat to Americans on U.S. soil.

“The capabilities we’ve built up after 9/11 are there to counter that threat to a major degree,” he said.

Rogers was more dire, particularly on the possibility of IS replicating itself as an idea, branding itself as a capable adversary to the West. On a day when Australian authorities announced that they had disrupted an IS-inspired plot to commit a public beheading, igniting fears that the group’s influence was spreading to the Asia-Pacific region, Rogers warned: “Don’t underestimate how success can breed change in others…If the perception becomes that the ISIL vision of the future and the tactics they implemented are successful and we would like to get on that train,” he said, pausing for a moment, looking toward the front of the stage, his face smoldering with worry, “that’s really bad.”