Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Part 2 -- Some History (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

While the National Intelligence Council (NIC) publishes some of its research for public consumption, releasing National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), even the key judgments from NIEs, was, up until 2007, virtually unheard of. The intelligence community considers NIEs, which likely contain highly classified information, to be closely guarded secrets and only a handful have been released prior to the ones discussed in this post. These include reports on such topics as SARS, AIDS and Humanitarian Emergencies. While a number of declassified NIEs have been available to researchers (for example, this NIE on Yugoslavia in 1990), the release of an NIE that concerned a current, sensitive issue was, until recently, simply not done.

In some sense though, this recent spate of releases is a natural extension of a process that began several years ago with the 9/11 Commission and the release of another highly classified document, the August 6, 2001 President’s Daily Brief (“Bin Laden Determined To Strike the United States”) and the WMD Commission’s dissection of the 2002 Iraq WMD NIE. Once policymakers had seen the impact that the release of these documents had on the debate regarding these issues, it was a small step to start demanding the release of a sanitized version of the key judgments for public review while the policy debate was still underway.

In 2006, the NIC, upon the request of Congress, made a version of its assessment regarding the Global War on Terror available and in 2007 the NIC released three additional NIEs on Congress’ request and the Director Of National Intelligence’s (DNI's) order (Prospects For Iraq's Stability and its update plus The Terrorist Threat To the US Homeland). Two other, significantly less well known NIEs from 2002-2003 were also released as part of the Senate’s investigation into prewar intelligence assessments about postwar Iraq. The DNI likely realized that the routine release of NIEs would, to a significant extent, defeat their purpose, i.e. to reduce national security policymakers’ level of uncertainty regarding external factors that could impact US national security issues. As a result, he formulated a policy that explicitly stated that such releases would not become the norm. This did not, however, stop the DNI from releasing the Key Judgments from the Iran NIE several weeks ago.

While the release of NIEs is unlikely to ever become “normal” (The NIC writes many NIEs in a given year and the few released this year likely make up a small fraction of the total number of NIEs completed), the potential for such a release has become the norm. It is this potential for increased Congressional and public scrutiny that is likely the driving factor behind the dramatic and largely positive changes that have taken place over the last 12 months in the way the NIE communicates its estimative conclusions to decisionmakers .

Tomorrow: Part 3 -- The Revolution Begins

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