Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Part 11 -- One More Thing (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

The other thing that changed within the form of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) (at least with regard to the form of the publicly available Key Judgments) with the release of last month’s Iran NIE is the nature of the Scope Note (see page 4 of the Iran NIE).

Prior to the Iran NIE, the Scope Note was either a list of additional analytic cautions or was not released at all. The Iran NIE, as with many of the other factors outlined in the previous 10 parts of this series, changed all that. The Scope Note still contains some “administrative” data and additional caveats but it is now primarily concerned with the specific questions the Intelligence Community (IC) has been asked to answer and with some of the assumptions it has made in the preparation of the document. These were likely taken from a formal Terms of Reference document. This document normally precedes the creation of an NIE and it tells the analysts in the National Intelligence Council (NIC), in broad terms, what questions they are supposed to answer. As the NIC puts it in the prefatory comments to the Iran NIE: “The TOR defines the key estimative questions, determines drafting responsibilities, and sets the drafting and publication schedule.”

The Scope Note from the Iran NIE asked five questions:

  • What are Iran’s intentions toward developing nuclear weapons?
  • What domestic factors affect Iran’s decisionmaking on whether to develop nuclear weapons?
  • What external factors affect Iran’s decisionmaking on whether to develop nuclear weapons?
  • What is the range of potential Iranian actions concerning the development of nuclear weapons, and the decisive factors that would lead Iran to choose one course of action over another?
  • What is Iran’s current and projected capability to develop nuclear weapons? What are our key assumptions, and Iran’s key chokepoints/vulnerabilities?

If these are the questions, what then are the answers? Take the first question, for example: "What are Iran's intentions toward developing nuclear weapons?". Read through the NIE yourself. Where is the first question clearly and unambiguously answered? Is this the answer: “…we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” If so, it is not much of an answer. "[A]t a minimum is keeping open the option..." sounds not only vague but also borders on just plain common sense. Maybe this is the answer: “We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.” I may be wrong but that sounds to me like, "We don't know" and, I would argue, that saying so up front and clearly (instead of in the middle of the Key Judgments) would have significantly changed the tone and content of the post-release discussion concerning this estimate.

Some of the other questions suffer from the same lack of a clear answer while the form of the Key Judgments makes finding the answers to these questions as difficult as possible. Search the document for the words "intent" or "intention". Outside the title and the Scope Note these words are never used again. Search for "factor" or "domestic" or "external". Wouldn’t you expect these words, so prominent in the questions the decisionmakers asked, to be somewhere mentioned in the Key Judgments? Wouldn’t the use of these words signal to the decisionmakers that were reading this document that 'here is the answer" to the questions they asked? Yes, of course, the sophisticated readers for whom these NIEs are primarily written can figure this all out themselves, but why should they have to? What fundamental intelligence principle is being abandoned by making the relationship between the question and the answer clearer?

If you are going to state up front that there are five questions to be answered, what then is wrong with organizing your answers around those five questions? Doesn’t it make way too much sense to say, in response to the first question, something like, "With X degree of confidence we assess that Iran’s intentions towards developing nuclear weapons likely are…”? Such a structure makes it clear what question is being answered and follows the guidelines laid down on page 5 of this same estimate.

I am not suggesting that the Intelligence Community (IC) turn into an "answer service." I strongly believe that the IC has an obligation to not only answer the questions it has been asked but also to address those questions people should be asking. I think it is the IC’s duty to look broadly, deeply, at these questions; to get at the nuance that only their expertise allows. That said, you still need to answer the question. Clearly. And if the answer is “I don’t know” then say so up front.

Part 12 – Final Thoughts

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