How to Read an NIE

It looks as though quite a kerfuffle is brewing over the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran, which leaked earlier this week and which apparently projects that Iran won't have nuclear weapons for another 10 years.

Putting aside for a moment the controversial judgment, it might be useful to outline what an NIE actually is, who participates in writing one, and how its judgments are developed.  With a grasp of all this, you can 'read' an NIE with more insight about what's going on inside our country's intelligence service — and perhaps within the Administration itself.

Our country's intelligence service is comprised of 15 separate agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the FBI, the intelligence units of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the National Security Agency and all the others.  Each of these component agencies 'publishes' reports and analyses all the time.  The CIA's intelligence directorate focuses on political and economic issues, the DIA and the military agencies focus on defense issues, the FBI deals with foreign agents operating within the US itself and the NSA handles intercepts.

The NIEs are unique, because they are the only documents designed to synthesize and reflect the collective views of the entire intelligence community.  That is why NIEs are considered the 'ultimate' documents, and why they garner so much attention by the President and his senior advisers.  The NIEs are prepared by a small group called the National Intelligence Council, which reports to the official who is in charge of the entire intelligence community.  That used to be the Director of Central Intelligence, and now is the Director of National Intelligence, a post currently held by John Negroponte.  And it's this top official who signs off on the final NIE and sends it to the President, which means that he is the one who bears the final responsibility for its content.

When the decision is made to produce a new NIE — either because the leader of the intelligence service decides on his own to do this, or because it's requested by the President or another top official such as the Secretary of State or Defense — it's the National Intelligence Council that takes on the task of producing the draft and co—coordinating its judgments among the 15 agencies that participate. 

The whole process usually takes several weeks — although in an emergency it can be done in 24 hours, or even less.  While most of the time is devoted to producing the draft, quite a bit of time — and energy — goes to resolving the inevitable differences among the agencies.   To use a purely hypothetical example, the draft of an NIE might conclude that political instability in China is growing, and that the current regime is unlikely to survive more than five years.  But when the draft is circulated for comment, the Defense Intelligence Agency replies that in its opinion the communist regime in Beijing won't fall apart for at least 10 years, while the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research sends over a blistering memo insisting that China is politically stable and that any talk about revolution in that country is just nuts.

There are two ways to resolve these differences in an NIE.  The first is to fudge the debate and use wording that all the agencies can agree upon.  For example, the final draft could read: We judge that China's future is uncertain.  The second approach is to highlight the differences.  For example: While the majority of the Intelligence Community believes that political instability in China is growing, we disagree about the depth of this instability and the timing of any future regime change.  Moreover, the State Department judges that China remains stable.

During the Reagan administration — when I managed production of the NIEs — we always took the second approach.  In fact, I had standing orders from William J. Casey, President Reagan's great Director of Central Intelligence, to avoid consensus—by—fudging and instead to seek out differences of opinion among the agencies and then to highlight them in the final draft.  Casey believed the President had a right to know about such differences, and he also understood that by highlighting disagreements, NIEs that reflected consensus — not because of weasily wording, but because there really was agreement — had a special power and credibility to them.

With this as background, now take a look at the new NIE about Iran's nuclear program.  Bearing in mind that leaks aren't always accurate, it appears that there are no dissents —— which would mean that all the agencies that comprise our country's intelligence service, and not only the (justly—maligned) CIA, agree that Iran is 10 years away from nuclear—power status.  If this is indeed the case, either the threat from Iran really is much lower than anyone had previously thought — or our entire intelligence service, and not just the CIA, has lost its way.  There's no way to tell without reading the entire document to see what evidence it provides to support its rather startling conclusion.  And it's also possible that one or more of the agencies don't agree — but that their dissenting views were cut out of the final draft that went to the President.  Again, there is no way to know without reading the full version and, obviously, talking to the heads of the participating agencies to learn if their views are accurately reflected in the NIE.  Finally, since this is the first major NIE produced by the newly—reorganized intelligence service under the leadership of DNI Negroponte  —— and since its startling conclusion has such profound policy implications —— it would be interesting to know if Mr. Negroponte actually read the NIE before signing off on it.

The true status of Iran's nuclear weapons program is too important to get caught in the usual Washington game of leaks and speculation.  Surely it isn't asking too much for members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — who never shut up about their oversight responsibilities — to cut short their vacations and get to the bottom of this.  Or is it?

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council.  His DVD on The Siege of Western Civilization has become an international best—seller.

It looks as though quite a kerfuffle is brewing over the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran, which leaked earlier this week and which apparently projects that Iran won't have nuclear weapons for another 10 years.

Putting aside for a moment the controversial judgment, it might be useful to outline what an NIE actually is, who participates in writing one, and how its judgments are developed.  With a grasp of all this, you can 'read' an NIE with more insight about what's going on inside our country's intelligence service — and perhaps within the Administration itself.

Our country's intelligence service is comprised of 15 separate agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the FBI, the intelligence units of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the National Security Agency and all the others.  Each of these component agencies 'publishes' reports and analyses all the time.  The CIA's intelligence directorate focuses on political and economic issues, the DIA and the military agencies focus on defense issues, the FBI deals with foreign agents operating within the US itself and the NSA handles intercepts.

The NIEs are unique, because they are the only documents designed to synthesize and reflect the collective views of the entire intelligence community.  That is why NIEs are considered the 'ultimate' documents, and why they garner so much attention by the President and his senior advisers.  The NIEs are prepared by a small group called the National Intelligence Council, which reports to the official who is in charge of the entire intelligence community.  That used to be the Director of Central Intelligence, and now is the Director of National Intelligence, a post currently held by John Negroponte.  And it's this top official who signs off on the final NIE and sends it to the President, which means that he is the one who bears the final responsibility for its content.

When the decision is made to produce a new NIE — either because the leader of the intelligence service decides on his own to do this, or because it's requested by the President or another top official such as the Secretary of State or Defense — it's the National Intelligence Council that takes on the task of producing the draft and co—coordinating its judgments among the 15 agencies that participate. 

The whole process usually takes several weeks — although in an emergency it can be done in 24 hours, or even less.  While most of the time is devoted to producing the draft, quite a bit of time — and energy — goes to resolving the inevitable differences among the agencies.   To use a purely hypothetical example, the draft of an NIE might conclude that political instability in China is growing, and that the current regime is unlikely to survive more than five years.  But when the draft is circulated for comment, the Defense Intelligence Agency replies that in its opinion the communist regime in Beijing won't fall apart for at least 10 years, while the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research sends over a blistering memo insisting that China is politically stable and that any talk about revolution in that country is just nuts.

There are two ways to resolve these differences in an NIE.  The first is to fudge the debate and use wording that all the agencies can agree upon.  For example, the final draft could read: We judge that China's future is uncertain.  The second approach is to highlight the differences.  For example: While the majority of the Intelligence Community believes that political instability in China is growing, we disagree about the depth of this instability and the timing of any future regime change.  Moreover, the State Department judges that China remains stable.

During the Reagan administration — when I managed production of the NIEs — we always took the second approach.  In fact, I had standing orders from William J. Casey, President Reagan's great Director of Central Intelligence, to avoid consensus—by—fudging and instead to seek out differences of opinion among the agencies and then to highlight them in the final draft.  Casey believed the President had a right to know about such differences, and he also understood that by highlighting disagreements, NIEs that reflected consensus — not because of weasily wording, but because there really was agreement — had a special power and credibility to them.

With this as background, now take a look at the new NIE about Iran's nuclear program.  Bearing in mind that leaks aren't always accurate, it appears that there are no dissents —— which would mean that all the agencies that comprise our country's intelligence service, and not only the (justly—maligned) CIA, agree that Iran is 10 years away from nuclear—power status.  If this is indeed the case, either the threat from Iran really is much lower than anyone had previously thought — or our entire intelligence service, and not just the CIA, has lost its way.  There's no way to tell without reading the entire document to see what evidence it provides to support its rather startling conclusion.  And it's also possible that one or more of the agencies don't agree — but that their dissenting views were cut out of the final draft that went to the President.  Again, there is no way to know without reading the full version and, obviously, talking to the heads of the participating agencies to learn if their views are accurately reflected in the NIE.  Finally, since this is the first major NIE produced by the newly—reorganized intelligence service under the leadership of DNI Negroponte  —— and since its startling conclusion has such profound policy implications —— it would be interesting to know if Mr. Negroponte actually read the NIE before signing off on it.

The true status of Iran's nuclear weapons program is too important to get caught in the usual Washington game of leaks and speculation.  Surely it isn't asking too much for members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — who never shut up about their oversight responsibilities — to cut short their vacations and get to the bottom of this.  Or is it?

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council.  His DVD on The Siege of Western Civilization has become an international best—seller.