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Let’s Put Bylines on Our ‘National’ Intelligence Estimates

Reuel Marc Gerecht
28th March 2009 - Wall Street Journal

Charles Freeman's withdrawal from his appointment as the chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) offers an opportunity to assess whether personal views should have any role in intelligence analysis. Mr. Freeman's opinions on Israel, the Middle East and China proved too strong for critics. Yet the NIC's National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) are often politicized and debased precisely because their anonymous authors need take no personal responsibility for their opinions.

No one knows if the upcoming new Iran estimate will be as politicized as was its 2007 predecessor, which damaged the diplomacy of both the U.S. and our European allies. In any case, the Obama administration likely will have one day a politically convulsive NIE that will make the president wonder why these estimates are ever drafted.

Anonymity is the byword of the intelligence profession. In operations, it is usually mandatory. In analysis, however, a collective effort that hides individual authorship is a dubious approach.

In theory, anonymity gives analysts protection from political pressure. And a collective judgment -- NIEs are the most consensual intelligence products that the executive branch puts out -- is supposed to be more reliable and convincing than the views of a particular analyst or agency.

In practice, however, this anonymous, collective approach has guaranteed that mediocre analysis goes unchallenged, and that analysts and senior officials within the NIC go unscarred when they're wrong. No one would want to invest money with a stockbroker who consistently gives bad advice. No one would want to retain a coach who loses more than he wins. Yet obtaining an analytical score card on analysts and their managers within the NIC, the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence or the office of the Director of National Intelligence is nearly impossible.

NIEs rarely offer insights not available elsewhere at far less cost. They have often been egregiously wrong -- my personal favorites were the NIEs written before Iran's Islamic Revolution that predicted the Pahlavi dynasty's survival into the 21st century -- and when right, often unspectacularly so (seeing enmity among the Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosnians in post-Cold War Yugoslavia wasn't particularly perspicacious). Yet where once NIEs attracted little attention, they now can become political footballs even before they are finished.

In part, this is because the nature of Washington has changed. Estimates were once either closely guarded or easily forgotten -- the secrecy of estimates was better kept and no one expected presidents or members of Congress to accept them as guides for foreign policy. Today, Americans have unprecedented access to secret information. And within the State Department and Congress, where partisan policy battles are fierce, members feel no hesitation in using NIEs as political battering rams. At dizzying speeds, politicians and their allied journalists can denigrate an NIE for its "group think," as was the case with the 2003 report on Iraqi WMD. Or they can applaud another for its supposed willingness to speak truth to power -- as we heard with the Iran "no-nuke" NIE of 2007. With the system we have, this isn't going to change.

President George W. Bush missed an enormous opportunity to reassess the CIA's operational and analytical branches -- the vital center of the American intelligence community -- after 9/11. He embraced the status quo, putting it on steroids by increasing its funding, adding more personnel, and canning no one.

Identifying the primary drafters of NIEs -- or any major analytical report requested by Congress -- could significantly improve the quality of these analyses and diminish the potential for politicians, the media and the intelligence community to politically exploit the reports. Senior managers at the CIA, the NIC or in any of America's other intelligence agencies should have their names appended to an assessment if they've had any substantive role in writing its conclusions. Although everyone in the intelligence community likes to get their fingers into an NIE, there are usually just a small number of individuals who do the lion's share of the work. They should all be known, and should be expected to defend their conclusions in front of Congress and senior executive-branch officials.

Contrary to what some journalists suggested about the prelude to the Iraq war, good analysts live to be questioned by senior officials. Intrepid analysts want to get out of their cubicles.

Think tankers can generally run circles around government analysts and managers on substance, and especially in "strategic" vision, because they operate in more open, competitive and intellectually rigorous environments. Anonymous collective official analysis tends to smother talent and parrot the current zeitgeist in Washington. Liberating first-rate analysts from the bureaucratic disciplining and expectations of their own agencies by allowing them to build public reputations is probably the most efficient and inexpensive way to introduce "contrarian views," an oft-stated reason for Mr. Freeman's appointment.

Mr. Freeman's strongly held personal views proved to be his appointment's stumbling block. If Dennis Blair, the director of National Intelligence, believes that views such as those held by Mr. Freeman would help the intellectual mix at the NIC, then he should allow these views to be heard and argued in an open environment.

In an environment where analysts have publicly tracked reputations, we are likely to see people take their tasks more seriously instead of hiding behind their agencies. Those who are confident in their assessments won't fear change. But those who are fence-sitters, more concerned about melding their views into what is bureaucratically palatable and politically acceptable, will likely drift to the rear as they grope for what is accepted orthodoxy.

A more open system still may not make the intelligence community's product competitive with the best from the outside on the big issues ("Whither China, Russia and Iran?"). But it will certainly make estimates more interesting to read than what we have now. Denied the imprimatur of saying "the intelligence community believes," estimates will come down to earth. And from that angle, it will be much harder for anyone again to use an NIE to damage their political opponents.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


911, cia, intelligence, intelligence-community, iran, iraq, israel, obama, russia