Thursday, January 17, 2008

Part 12 -- Final Thoughts (The Revolution Begins On Page Five: The Changing Nature Of The NIE And Its Implications For Intelligence)

Part 1 -- Welcome To The Revolution
Part 2 -- Some History
Part 3 -- The Revolution Begins
Part 4 -- Page Five In Detail
Part 5 -- Enough Exposition, Let's Get Down To It...
Part 6 -- Digging Deeper
Part 7 -- Looking At The Fine Print
Part 8 -- Confidence Is Not the Only Issue
Part 9 -- Waffle Words And Intel-Speak
Part 10 -- The Problem With “If”
Part 11 -- One More Thing

Part 12 -- Final Thoughts

The Pontiac Solstice, when it came out last year, marked a significant change in the way most people think about the Pontiac brand. The picture below, taken from the Wikimedia Commons, does not do the car justice. If you haven't seen one, go to the Solstice website or, even better, park next to one and get out and take a look. If you like automobiles at all, it is hard not to like the look of the Solstice. More importantly, the Solstice was something that no one could imagine coming out of the stodgy and decidedly old-fashioned workshops at Pontiac. It was revolutionary.

It did not take long, however, before the automobile critics got the car and tore it apart. They were not kind. It had a noisy engine, interior styling was poor, its ragtop was hard to work with and the reliability of the car (based on past Pontiac performance) was expected to be much worse than for other sports cars. My guess is the critics figured that anything that looked that good on the outside needs to be as good on the inside as well.

The parallel between the previous 11 parts of this experiment in blog based "scholarship" (which has unquestionably descended into editorializing at times) is undeniable. What the Intelligence community has done with the Iran National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is unquestionably revolutionary. The process of taking what was likely a Top Secret codeword document and revising it to an unclassified version for the world to see is, by itself, extremely difficult. To complicate matters by then requiring the IC to come up with a one-page explanation of what amounts to the IC's current theory of the intelligence estimate seems to be almost ask too much of the system.

Revolutions are not linear, however, they are iterative. Washington needed Valley Forge before he could have Yorktown, physics needed Newton before it could have Einstein and I am sure the Pontiac designers are working to fix any of the criticisms they consider legitimate as well. The distance covered from previous NIEs to the Iran NIE is massive but, as the previous 11 parts of this analysis suggest, there is more that should be considered. Specifically:
  • Take advantage of the theory already articulated to make estimates clearer and more nuanced. To put it more simply: Actually do what you said you were going to do on Page 5.
The decision to make the Key Judgments from at least some of the NIEs public had to have been difficult but the benefits are tangible. Not only does it inform the electorate, it prevents the elected from ignoring inconvenient assessments. In a day and age where massive information flows threaten to swallow us all, it makes intelligence and the intelligence community that produces it more relevant, not less. While there is clearly work still left to be done, the IC has accomplished much in a very short time. The revolution has begun; long live the revolution!


Robert Stacey said...


Obviously not all NIEs (or at least the "Key Judgments" sections) are released to the public. As I understand it, normally they remain classified. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program NIE, who made the decision to release it? Did that come from the White House? From the DNI? From the NIC? Someone else?

Kristan J. Wheaton said...

The IC laid out its reasoning for releasing the Iran NIE in a statement available at

Previous NIEs had been released because Congress had specifically requested it.

Robert Stacey said...

Thank you for that link. It clarifies things nicely. By the way, I have been fascinated by your series of posts on WEPs and this latest NIE. Keep up the great work.