September 30, 2006
National Intelligence Estimates: A Brief OverviewBy John B. Dwyer
With the heated, ongoing debates over leaked excerpts from the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), it might be a good idea to examine briefly the history and nature of these documents.
NIE's originated with the CIA's Office of National Estimates, established in 1950. Its first Deputy Chief, then Chief until 1967 was OSS veteran and former Yale history professor, Sherman Kent, esteemed to this day for his intellectual rigor and honesty. In his time, he made some wise, incisive comments about NIEs which are still cited today at the Agency's website.
And in 'A Crucial Estimate Relived,' published in 1964, he wrote,
'If NIEs were confined to statements of indisputable fact the task would be safe and easy. Of course the result could not then be an estimate. By definition, estimating is an excursion out beyond established facts into the unknown — a venture in which the estimator gets such aid and comfort as he can from analogy, extrapolation, logic and judgement. In the nature of things he will upon occasion end up with a conclusion which time will prove to be wrong. To recognize this as inevitable does not mean that we estimators are reconciled to our inadequacy; it only means we fully realize that we are engaged in a hazardous occupation.'
Today, NIEs are produced by the Office of National Estimate's successor, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which was established in 1979. That product is defined in much the same way as Sherman Kent put it years before.
So, we have estimates, 'excursions out beyond established facts into the unknown,' and we have judgments. Despite these people being professionals, the unavoidable human elements of ego, pride, intellectual preferences, etc. militate against the supreme goal of total objectivity.
Or, as was the case in the controversial October 2002 NIE concerning Iraq possessing WMDs, you had the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research dissenting from the CIA and other intel community members' key judgments.
As much as anything else, these dissents reflect institutional pride and bias. Their opinions and judgments would be a part of the record. In that 2002 NIE, State, while admitting that Saddam continued to pursue limited efforts to maintain and acquire nuclear weapons—related capabilities, averred that
Do I sense a certain amount of parsing the possibilities here? The Bureau of Intelligence and Research went on to list 'Confidence Levels for Selected Key Judgments In This Estimate.' It had high confidence that
Only moderate confidence was expressed in the key judgment that
and low confidence in
Getting beyond the many qualifying words and phrases, the dissents do not represent anything like a strong refutation of the administration's assertion that Saddam had WMD, just as the de—classified Key Judgments of the 2006 NIE do not contradict Bush administration policy on, and strategy and tactics in, Iraq. In fact, as the White House states at its website under the Setting The Record Straight section with the heading 'The Rest Of The Story: The NIE Reflects Previous Statements About The War On Terror,' President Bush has already addressed a number of Key Judgments found in the 2006 NIE. Here are some of them:
Writing in 'Tracking The Dragon: Selected NIEs On China, 1948—1976,' Robert L. Suettinger wrote
National Intelligence Estimates are but one of the decision—making tools, albeit important ones, utilized by the President of the United States. Nothing more.
The all—important issue then becomes what the president ultimately decides. In a number of speeches prior to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush made his intentions crystal clear, as he did during his January 28, 2003 State of the Union address:
Therefore, it is not so much the quality of the NIEs that is crucial, it is the quality of leadership, in this case the honor, integrity and fortitude of President George W. Bush.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian and a frequent contributor to American Thinker.