Monday, March 16, 2009

The Trouble With NIEs

For many Americans, the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program was a head-scratching moment. After months of research, writing and editing, the nation's intel community offered a contradictory, bottom-line assessment on Tehran's nuclear intentions.

While concluding that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons development effort in 2003, analysts noted Iran was still working on other functions required to produce an atomic bomb, including uranium enrichment and development of long-range delivery platforms. In other words, the pause was something of a mirage, but the NIE served its apparent purpose: preventing the Bush Administration from launching military action against Iran.

All NIEs are produced under the auspices of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which was created in 1979 to serve as a focal point for mid-term and long-term strategic thinking within the community. As part of its portfolio, the NIC inherited responsibility for National Intelligence Estimates, the latest version of long-term assessments that were first produced in the 1950s.

The NIC has been in the news recently, thanks to the Obama Administration's attempt to install Ambassador Charles Freeman as the new chairman of that body. Freeman's nomination drew fire from all sides of the political spectrum. Critics derided Freeman for his anti-Israeli statements; his cozy relationship with the Saudi government, and a dismissive attitude toward the 1989 Tinammen Square crackdown.

Lost amid that shuffle was another disqualifier--the fact that Ambassador Freeman had no prior intel experience, except as a consumer of intelligence products. With that hole in his resume, the Ambassador was an odd choice to supervise--and revitalize--the production of key intel estimates.

But as Mark Lowenthal reminds us in today's Washington Post, the NIE process has serious problems that go well beyond the National Intelligence Council. For six decades, the intel community has generated key assessments (including the flagship NIEs) that are ponderous, occasionally irrelevant--and rarely read by their target audience, including senior elected officials and other policy-makers.

The roots of the NIC go back to the early 1950s, when Director of Central Intelligence Walter Bedell Smith created an Office of National Estimates to produce long-term strategic analyses that would provide the president and his senior advisers with the consensus views of the government's various intelligence agencies. These documents, called National Intelligence Estimates, quickly ran into trouble. As early as the mid-'50s, a survey found that the main audience for these lengthy documents was junior staff members who used the estimates to help them brief their superiors. The survey also found that NIEs were considered too ponderous and that readers questioned how the "consensus" was achieved.

It hasn't gotten any better since then. In fact, not only are the estimates too unwieldy to be of any use, they generate distracting and dangerous controversy because they are so susceptible to political "cherry-picking."
Take one of the most infamous examples. The 2002 estimate claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction had little influence on anyone's decision about going to war. Only six senators actually read the NIE, but 77 voted to authorize the use of force. As analytically flawed as that estimate might have been, the one intelligence "sin" the council did not commit was "politicization" -- that is, writing what the policymaker wants to hear. Even the Senate intelligence committee's investigation of the Iraq NIE agreed; it wasn't politicized to support invasion.


But these controversies actually exaggerate the importance of these documents in the policy process. The estimates haven't improved much since that survey of 54 years ago. They remain long, ponderous, sometimes tortuously written and largely lacking in influence. As a senior intelligence officer during the Bush administration, I led a team that conducted an extensive biannual review of intelligence performance. As part of this evaluation, we asked senior policymakers which intelligence products they found most useful. In each evaluation, NIEs came in last or next to last.

Lowenthal, who served as Vice-Chairman of the NIC from 2002-2005, understands that the process is broken. But he doesn't offer any real recommendations for fixing the problem, and there's the rub. Everyone hates the current approach, but no one seems able to come up with a better one.

A few wags have suggested scrapping the system altogether, and there's a certain logic in that. Still, the intelligence community can hardly abandon the long-range estimate business, nor can it avoid consensus assessments on critical subjects.

As a first step toward reform, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) might consider wider community representation within the council. Currently, most of the members fit a particular template, which is long on advanced degrees and academic expertise in specific geographic areas or geopolitical issues. In terms of agency experience, the NIC is heavily weighted toward former CIA and State Department officials.

Nothing wrong with that, but wouldn't the NIC benefit from experts draw from other organizations? It's rather stunning that the council's current membership does not include a single career officer from the National Security Agency, or someone who "grew up" on the operations side of the CIA. And, despite the impact of intel assessments on our armed forces, only one council member has a background in military intelligence. There also appears to be a lack of expertise in emerging intel technologies (think MASINT) at the upper levels of the NIC.

To be fair, major assessments are never based on a single intelligence discipline, and the council has plenty of experts among its support staff--and the agency analysts who contribute to the process. But, to effectively guide long-term Intel assessments, the NIC needs to reflect the current threat environment, and the expertise required to analyze those issues. Facing terrorism and other transnational issues, a council populated by "old line" experts on the Soviet Union, China and traditional geographic regions could certainly use some fresh perspectives.

Not to mention an end to the politics that produced aberrations like the Iran NIE.

1 comment:

El Jefe Maximo said...

Perhaps the problem is the process itself, the NIEs are horses designed by committees -- and this is inherent in the nature of a beast designed to show a "consensus assessment." I'd be shocked if the former CIA and State officials on the NIC didn't reflexively defend the perspectives of their conferes back at their old shops.

All this sounds a little like the old issue that military institutions confront trying to engage in joint planning -- even with General Staff systems that try to focus on jointness, the incumbents bring with them the perspectives and prejudices of their individual branches of service.