WASHINGTON – The CIA is giving the military a greater say in the debate over how the war in Afghanistan is going by allowing battlefield commanders to weigh into the analysis at early stages, U.S. officials say.
The move prompted a flurry of criticism in the intelligence community's old guard, worried the change presages a campaign by newly arrived general-turned-CIA director David Petraeus to improve the poor marks the CIA gave the war effort in its own analysis earlier this year.
The change was originally reported to The Associated Press as the brainchild of Petraeus by senior intelligence officials who saw it as a way to improve the intelligence community's grading of the war. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy debates.
But the CIA says the change was requested by the current Afghanistan commander, Marine Gen. John Allen, and agreed to by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, before Petraeus arrived at the agency.
"I saw it as strengthening the analysis, better informing the analytic process," Morell told the AP on Friday. "We will still call it like we see it but now with even better ground truth."
Morell had been trying to find a way to narrow the gulf between the intelligence community's sometimes negative view of the war versus the more positive views sometimes expressed by commanders in the fight, a senior intelligence official added, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Morell said Petraeus affirmed the move after he took the job as director.
Petraeus issued a statement to the CIA staff Friday saying the change in process was "introduced to enhance coordination, to get our officers even earlier access to more information, and to ensure we gain the benefit of hearing from those on the ground full-time_intelligence base chiefs, civilian experts, and military officers alike" and not "to impose a military viewpoint on our analysis."
He said the AP article represented an "inaccurate picture of his thoughts" on analysis.
The change affects how CIA analysts conduct their semi-annual review of every Afghan district to determine several factors, including who is in control - the Afghan government or the Taliban. The analysts used to brief their findings to the senior military commander in Kabul, who would then share them with his subordinates, to ask their opinion.
Now, the analysts will brief those battlefield commanders on their findings first. The commanders will have the option to point out something the CIA may have missed, in which case, the analyst can change the report - or choose to hold firm, and simply note the commander's disagreement.
"No one on the CIA leadership team has directed that our analysts pay more attention to or place more weight on the views of our military colleagues," Petraeus said in his statement. "The change was simply this: to ask our analysts to discuss their findings with working-level ISAF officers before discussing them with the ISAF leadership_the same steps, but just in a different order."
The policy has been backed by National Intelligence Director James Clapper, another senior U.S. official said.
Intelligence oversight committees will be asking for more details about the change, said a senior U.S. official Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss congressional oversight processes.
The CIA's analysis makes up the bulk of national intelligence estimates, which help guide the White House and Congress in drafting future policy.
The last U.S. intelligence assessment offered a dim view of progress in Afghanistan despite the counterinsurgency campaign Petraeus oversaw there and painted a stark contrast to the generally upbeat predictions of progress from Petraeus and other military leaders. Petraeus has made no secret of his frustration with recent negative assessments coming primarily from the CIA, and said during his confirmation hearing that he planned to change the way the civilian analysts grade wars.
Petraeus took over as head of the CIA last month. He was directly in charge of the war in Afghanistan for more than a year - his last job in uniform - and oversaw the war as the head of Central Command before that. Like Iraq, Afghanistan has become a proving ground for the theories of counterinsurgency Petraeus is credited with making central to current U.S. military doctrine.
The previous U.S. intelligence assessment on Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year contradicted then-war-commander Petraeus' assessment. Where he saw "fragile but reversible progress," the analysts from across the intelligence community largely reported stalemate in several parts of the country. The disagreements were highlighted in the CIA's district by district assessments in which progress was graded geographically, with intelligence analysts seeing far less progress in key districts than did military commanders on the ground.
They emphasized a spate of assassinations by the Taliban and poor performance by the Afghan government in their report, two U.S. officials say.
Analysts also were negative about the performance of the Afghanistan security forces, whereas military commanders saw some units performing competently.
Petraeus insisted at his confirmation hearing in June that he could "grade my own work." But he vowed then to change the way the CIA grades wars, saying the analysts relied on battlefield data that was often six weeks to eight weeks old. He called that a snapshot that was outdated by the time it reached decision-makers.
Petraeus earlier told senators he'd disagreed with four such national intelligence estimates on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan __ two because he thought they were too pessimistic, and two he thought were too optimistic.
The February Afghan intelligence assessment found that special operations night raids, combined with village-by-village security operations, had shown more lasting progress in undermining the Taliban and their influence than attempts by conventional military forces to drive out militants, according to three U.S. officials who have read the analysis and described it to The Associated Press.
Petraeus oversaw both the conventional and special operations military campaigns, but his ideas about how to outsmart insurgent militias are more closely associated with the conventional military.
The report did not favor one strategy over another. But the information gave ammunition to those who supported Vice President Joe Biden's special operations-centered counterterrorism strategy over Petraeus' backing of traditional counterinsurgency. It was seen as proof for some that the additional conventional forces Petraeus championed made little impact on the overall campaign and a slam against parts of the strategy designed by its architect just as he seeks to lead the intelligence service.
President Barack Obama's announcement of a drawdown of 33,000 troops is being seen as another departure from Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy.
Petraeus would only say it was a more "aggressive ... timeline" than he'd recommended, which meant greater risk that U.S. forces might not succeed.
In at least one instance, the analysts' conclusions in that last intelligence assessment tracked with Petraeus' recommendation of keeping larger numbers of troops on the ground for a longer time period.
The intelligence analysts pointed to intercepted communications and broadcasts among Taliban commanders who were heartened by Obama's drawdown timetable and were able to reverse their decline of last spring in recruiting new fighters, two U.S. officials said.
Kimberly Dozier can be followed on Twitter via (at)kimberlydozier