Intelligence estimates are always deficient but almost never politicized. Estimates can never be completely correct because they are, well, estimates—best-effort interpretations of scant and often contradictory information produced to help policymakers understand potentially consequential developments. Getting it completely right is laudable but unattainable; doing it right is imperative. Doing it right includes doing everything possible to ensure objectivity. Safeguards to prevent politicization are not perfect, but integrity and objectivity are not rare or heroic phenomena in the Intelligence Community (IC). They are its lifeblood and raison d’être. There is no contradiction between the two observations, merely a testimony to how difficult the intelligence craft can be. A good, if controversial, case in point is the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear program from 2007.
The 2007 Iran nuclear capabilities and intentions estimate was unusual in three important respects, but a lack of integrity in its generation was not one of them. First, the impact was certainly unusual. Some who sought and others who feared the use of military force against Iran’s nuclear program at that time claim the estimate “prevented a war.” If it had that effect, I’m glad it did. But preventing the use of military force was never an objective or even a consideration when we prepared that estimate. Our goal, and our only goal, was to provide a transparent and objective assessment of what we knew at the time about Iran’s nuclear program. Decisions about what to do are the responsibility of policymakers, not intelligence analysts. Our job is to ensure that their decisions are informed by the best information and most objective analytic judgments we can produce.
The second unusual aspect of that estimate is that the White House ordered the immediate release of an unclassified version of the estimate’s key judgments. Yes, you read right: The White House instructed the Intelligence Community to declassify the key judgments.
Part of the mythology that has grown up around this NIE claims that the IC (or “I” without the “C”) released the key judgments to thwart a President determined to go to war. That was simply not true. When the White House told us to release the key judgments, the reason given was that since IC judgments about Iran’s nuclear program had been used to support U.S. diplomatic initiatives around the world, the U.S. government had an obligation to inform other governments that the IC had changed its assessment. I consider that commendable.
The third unusual aspect was the immediate and impassioned reaction of those who did not like the NIE’s finding that Iran had halted specifically weapons-related portions of its program in response to international scrutiny and pressure. (Note that the NIE never said or implied that the Iranian program itself had come to a halt, and it certainly never tried to suggest that the problem had gone away, as some critics tried to imply.) Stated another way, the critics did not like the implication that diplomacy had been effective.
None of the immediate critics could possibly have read the estimate. At best they were reacting to the declassified summary, two and half pages of a 120-page document with nearly 1,500 source notes and several annexes. But that mattered little, because their attack focused on personalities, including me, rather than on substance. The ploy garnered a lot of attention but had no impact on policy, mainly because the integrity and objectivity of the process that produced the estimate were solid. A subsidiary reason is that critics’ presumptions (or preferences) regarding the policy inclinations of senior decision-makers at that time were probably wrong.
s the 2007 Iran example shows, the integrity and objectivity that are the norms in the U.S. Intelligence Community can serve as a buffer against the passions and partisanship that often affect our decision processes. In our information-rich age, decision-makers are bombarded with “facts”, judgments and recommendations from inside the bureaucracy as well as from lobbyists, think tanks, media commentators, partisan politicians, academic experts and many others. All have or are assumed to have agendas and policy preferences, and all shape their assessments and presentations to promote the outcomes they prefer. Seen in that light, input from the Intelligence Community is just one stream among many, but it differs from all the rest in three respects: presumed objectivity, access to information not available to most others, and direct knowledge of what decision-makers are thinking and want to know about a given issue. These distinguishing characteristics are at the heart of the reason the Intelligence Community exists.
Let me unpack this point and elaborate it. The Intelligence Community has no purpose other than to inform U.S. government decision-makers, and no other customers aside from those decision-makers. The job of the Intelligence Community is to help other national security officials to do their jobs by providing information and insights that are difficult or impossible to obtain elsewhere. In a very small number of cases, the IC is used to implement policy decisions. But its primary function is to provide information and insight keyed to the mission and requirements of the national security enterprise. Paraphrasing an old commercial from the German chemical corporation BASF, the Intelligence Community makes no policy decisions, but it makes many policy decisions better by providing timely, targeted, well-informed and objective judgments about complex and potentially consequential developments. It makes the very best “chemicals”, but it doesn’t tell buyers what to do with them.
Avoiding policy advocacy is not simply a noble ideal. Injunctions to avoid advocacy are reinforced by three bulwarks: structural arrangements; training in analytic tradecraft, bureaucratic process and professionalism; and the widespread recognition that perverting the mission of the Intelligence Community would be both dumb and dangerous.
Consider, first, the structural safeguards. The structure of the U.S. Intelligence Community is often described as chaotic and inefficient. In some ways it is, but not illogically so. The reason we have so many different components is that each exists to support particular missions and decision-makers and is the locus of different kinds of expertise. The Secretary of State needs different forms of intelligence support than do the Commandant of the Marine Corps or the Attorney General. To be useful, intelligence support must be tailored to the specific needs of particular national security customers.
The existence of multiple organizations with partially overlapping responsibilities fosters bureaucratic competition and other organizational pathologies, but it also ensures that any important issue is examined by at least two sets of analysts working in different organizations. These analysts report to different cabinet secretaries and view issues through lenses calibrated to the missions they support. In these and other ways, structure provides checks and balances against groupthink, politicization, failure to consider all the evidence, and other potential distortions. The system is not perfect, but “second opinions” and “independent judgments” are built into the process. To hijack the process, as Hollywood movies sometimes try to depict, one would have to hijack multiple independent components.
A second and more important safeguard is subsumed under the heading of training and analytic tradecraft. When I was entrusted with responsibility to implement the changes mandated by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 as the first Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, I placed heavy emphasis on training and the inculcation of core values. The training programs we developed had two principal foci, one of which was instruction in analytic methods and rules of evidence and inference. This instruction is designed to reinforce lessons learned in college or graduate school to ensure that analysts know how to evaluate information, explore alternative hypotheses, articulate assumptions or analogies to close information gaps, and other fundamental skills. This part of the training teaches analysts how to be objective—how to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and how to ensure against the cherry-picking of evidence to prove a favored hypothesis or support a particular policy option.
An even more important component addresses the importance of objectivity. This is the “why do it” as opposed to the “how to do it” part of professional training. This is where we emphasize the obligation of the Intelligence Community to be the one source of information and insight to the decision-making process that is, and is recognized to be, as objective as possible. Of course other analysts can be objective. But most do not participate actively in the policymaking process. Those who choose to be involved often do so to obtain particular outcomes or decisions. That is not a criticism. It is simply a statement of the way most U.S. government officials with whom I have worked perceive the world in which they operate.
A third check against distortion, willful or otherwise, exists as a consequence of both long-standing bureaucratic procedures and reforms adopted after 2003 to correct process and performance flaws that were manifest in the infamous 2002 estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Before describing those procedures, let me comment briefly on three aspects of that Iraq WMD estimate.
First, that 2002 estimate had no effect on the decision to go to war. That decision was made before the estimate was produced, and virtually no senior U.S. decision-makers read the NIE at the time it was written. Of course, that does not excuse the flaws in the estimate or relieve the Intelligence Community of culpability for misinforming decision-makers. It does, however, underscore the importance of reforming more than just the production of National Intelligence Estimates.
Second, the way intelligence was used—or misused—in the case of the Iraq estimate influenced changes in procedure almost as much as did the need to correct analytic problems. In this case we learned, or relearned, that we must also build in safeguards against misuse by making our analysis as clear, transparent and methodologically rigorous as possible.
Third, my own role in that flawed estimate came to bother me, and it bothers me still. Representing the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, I dissented on the key finding regarding Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. That dissent turned out to be justified. But I am as scarred as other senior participants were by other flaws in the estimate concerning chemical and biological weapons programs and more. That experience strengthened my resolve to fix the process so that nothing like that would ever happen again and, frankly, that resolve affected the particular care we marshaled for the 2007 NIE on the Iranian nuclear program.
ne of the lessons we learned from the Iraq WMD experience is that it is imperative to identify and disseminate the existence of analytic differences as early as possible. One of the hardest tasks for any analyst is to dislodge an erroneous judgment after it has been implanted in the head of a decision-maker—all the more so if the official has spoken or acted on the basis of the inaccurate information. Key ideas later incorporated into the Iraq estimate had been communicated to senior officials long before they were challenged during preparation of the estimate. By then, it was too late to influence events.
To address this problem, I used my concurrent positions as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Deputy Director of National Intelligence responsible for the President’s Daily Brief to mandate that draft assessments be circulated to relevant experts across the IC before they went to policymakers. The purpose was to determine whether there were factual errors or missing information, and to discover whether analysts with access to the same information and employing the same high standards of analytic tradecraft had reached a different analytic judgment. Significant analytic differences are now revealed to decision-makers as soon as they are discovered.
Another procedural change reflecting lessons from the Iraq estimate is the formal requirement that any unclassified version of an estimate or its key judgments must accurately reflect the classified study. Sensitive information can be redacted, but that information cannot be replaced with information or judgments not included in the original. Moreover, the existence of alternative or dissenting views must also be reflected. The dissenting views contained in the Iraq NIE were not reflected in the unclassified white paper released at the same time.1
Another check on distortion or politicization is the professionalism of intelligence analysts. Among the most galling caricatures of intelligence analysis are those that depict the process as “connecting dots” and analysts as pliant political tools. Assertions that analysts could have or should have “connected the dots” are a manifestation of hindsight bias. If one knows the outcome, it is obviously much easier to explain why and how it occurred than it is to find patterns and probabilities that telegraph events that have not yet happened. Moreover, intelligence exists to tackle the really hard stuff. If “anybody could do it”, there would be no reason to spend money on intelligence or professional analysts.
have worked with intelligence analysts for more than forty years and supervised them for 25. As a group and as individuals, they manifest an extraordinary commitment to serve their country. Like all analysts, they want to solve puzzles and explain events. But unlike most other analysts, they know that their work will reach and be considered by officials with the ability to shape the decisions and actions of the most powerful country in the world. They believe that the ability of our country to do the right thing depends, in part, on their ability to enhance understanding by providing accurate and objective assessments to those they support. In other words we feel an enormous obligation to “get it right.”
Analysts are a proud and prickly bunch who rebel against any intimation that they should or would skew their analysis to produce a predetermined judgment. Far from being malleable, they are almost certain to get their backs up and to protest vehemently in response to any suggestion that they “fix the facts” or “cook the books.” Moreover, to repeat a point made above, even if a particular individual attempted to do so, either of his own volition or in response to political pressure, it would almost immediately become apparent to other analysts and other agencies. If the professional ethos of intelligence analysts alone doesn’t prevent political distortion, the structure of the community does.
Finally, there is enlightened self-interest. Training and professional norms reinforce the innate stubbornness of individual analysts. So, too, does the fact that their work is seen by other analysts and reviewed by superiors who evaluate their performance. They know, and if they forget they will be reminded, that their highest obligation is to truth and objectivity, not to pleasing particular officials or even their own superiors. Similarly, analytic supervisors know that their own reputations and that of their organization will be badly tarnished by suspicion that objectivity has been sacrificed to expediency or political pressure.
Customers have as big a stake in objectivity as do intelligence analysts. They, too, are motivated by desire to make well-informed decisions. They understand that the analysts with the best understanding of the decision-maker’s mission and objectives, and the only ones involved whose principal responsibility is to support the decision-making process, are those in the Intelligence Community. Most understand that pressing for distorted judgments discredits the process as well as the people involved. Since all members of the national security enterprise recognize that they are involved in a game with many rounds, they understand that ill-advised pressure today can contaminate the support they receive in future. At a minimum, any decision-maker who poisons the analytical well must be suspicious of whatever he or she is told in the future, and it is hard to see how seeding such suspicions will ensure the accuracy and objectivity decision-makers need.
Of course, the system isn’t perfect. No such system can ever be perfect. There have been instances of political pressure and manipulation. But the few instances cited by critics almost always refer to the same incidents and involve capitulations to pressure not by working analysts but by the senior-most IC officials. I will not excuse the behavior of these former Directors of Central Intelligence, but it is worth noting that they occupied positions that spanned the intelligence-policymaking divide. Note, too, that the annual report on politicization in the Intelligence Community that I was required to provide to the Congress when I was Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis affirms the point. Each year we asked approximately 20,000 analysts to complete an anonymous survey asking if they had experienced or knew of any attempts to pressure analysts to change their judgments for political reasons. The report itself is classified, but I can reveal that 20,000 questionnaires typically yielded fewer than a dozen cases that reduced to less than a handful when correcting for duplicate reporting. Of this, the number of attempts said to have been successful was zero.
am proud to have been an intelligence analyst and proud of the work we did. I am proud of the work my successors continue to produce day in and day out. I am also proud of the fact that the tradecraft reflected in the 2007 Iran NIE has stood up to multiple reviews; its conclusions have been reaffirmed every year since in the unclassified Threat Assessments that the Director of National Intelligence delivers to the Congress as part of the annual budget process.
I am even more proud of the fact that this was not a rare example of competence and integrity. To the contrary, it is an accurate reflection of the work done by intelligence analysts on hundreds of issues every year. We did not get everything right and we never will. But we can help reduce uncertainty and inform decisions. That’s what we do when we are—and are perceived to be—objective, honest and thoroughly professional.
Making estimates about WMD programs remains a significant IC portfolio, both with respect to Iran and several other countries. These are invariably contentious issues because the stakes associated with them are so high. There will be attempts to politicize intelligence from without and possibly even from within, accusations that such attempts have succeeded, and no little emotion all around. As long as the Intelligence Community does what it is trained to do best, and senior decision-makers know their own best long-term interests, integrity will trump politicization.1Other procedural changes to ensure objectivity and greater accuracy are discussed in the chapter entitled “A Tale of Two Estimates” in my Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence Analysis and National Security (Stanford University Press, 2011).