National Intelligence Estimates: A Brief Overview

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.

'The NIE,  taking into account the high echelon of its initiators, producers, and consumers, should be the community's best effort to deal with the relevant evidence imaginatively and judiciously.  It should set forth the community's findings in such a way as to make clear to the reader what is certain knowledge and what is reasoned judgement, and within this large realm of judgement what varying degrees of certitude lie behind each key statement.'      

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.

'The Director of National Intelligence's most authoritative, written judgments concerning national security issues containing the coordinated judgments of the intelligence community regarding the likely course of future events.  The NIC's goal is to provide policymakers with the best, unbiased, unvarnished information, regardless of whether analytic judgments conform to US policy.'

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

'the activities we have detected do not add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what we consider an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.' 

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

'Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions; Iraq possessing proscribed chemical and biological weapons and missiles, and that Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons grade fissile material.' 

Only moderate confidence was expressed in the key judgment that

'Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one, but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009'

and low confidence in

'Saddam using WMD, engaging in attacks on the US homeland and whether in desperation Saddam would share chemical or biological weapons with Al Qaeda.'

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:

1. The Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operators; success in Iraq would inspire jihadis to fight elsewhere.

2. The global jihadi movement is spreading and adapting to US counter—terrorist efforts.

3. The threat of self—radicalized cells will grow at home and abroad in response to US counter—terrorism efforts.     

Writing in 'Tracking The Dragon: Selected NIEs On China, 1948—1976,' Robert L. Suettinger wrote 

' To this day, Estimates remain controversial...In discussing large and complex topics, NIEs necessarily have to delve into a realm of speculation, a dense process of trying to separate out the probable from the possible from the impossible, and of providing answers to difficult but important questions with an appropriate degree of uncertainty about incomplete information.' 

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

'Before 9/11 many believed Saddam Hussein could be contained...some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions...if this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all action, all words, all recriminations would come too late.  Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, not an option...if Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people, for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.' 

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.

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