Intelligence Estimates: How Useful to Congress?
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) are often of considerable interest to many Members of
Congress. They represent the most formal assessment of a given issue by the U.S. Intelligence
Community and address issues of major national security importance which may require
congressional action. The intelligence process, however, is not an exact science and, on occasion,
NIEs have proved unreliable because they were based on insufficient evidence or contained faulty
analysis. This was demonstrated in the NIE produced in 2002 on Iraqi Weapons of Mass
Destruction, parts of which were significantly inaccurate. NIEs can provide insights into the
likely effects of certain policy approaches, but they are not usually made to take into account the
details of planned U.S. diplomatic, economic, military, or legislative initiatives.
In the past, Congress was not a principal consumer of NIEs but now appears increasingly
interested in obtaining NIEs on crucial security issues despite or perhaps because of the
experience with the 2002 Iraq NIE. The FY2007 Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 109-364,
section 1213) specifically requested a comprehensive NIE on Iran. In February 2007 the
Intelligence Community also released an NIE on Prospects for Iraq’s Stability in response to a
In early December 2007 the Director of National Intelligence released the Key Judgments of a
National Intelligence Estimate, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. The new NIE judged
“with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Even though
the NIE did recognize that “with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is
keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” this dramatic release of the Key Judgments
on Iran heightened interest in the NIE process and its relevance to policymaking. Some observers
assert, however, that public discussion on specific NIEs may not adequately reflect the process by
which they are prepared or their inherent limitations.
This report will be updated when new information becomes available.
Background: The Intelligence Community’s Most Authoritative Products.....................................1
Congress as a Consumer of NIEs....................................................................................................4
The 2002 NIE on Iraqi WMD.........................................................................................................6
NIE on Trends in Global Terrorism, 2006.......................................................................................8
NIE on Prospects for Iraq’s Stability, January 2007........................................................................9
NIE on Iranian Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities......................................................................10
Conclusion: Useful Products if Limitations Appreciated..............................................................12
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................13
National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) represent the highest and most formal level of strategic
analysis by the U.S. Intelligence Community. They are by definition forward-looking; as one
participant in the estimative process has written, “Estimates are not predictions of the future.
They are considered judgments as to the likely course of events regarding an issue of importance 1
to the nation. Sometimes, more than one outcome may be estimated.” NIEs focus on foreign
developments; they are not net assessments that directly compare U.S. and foreign capabilities
The responsibility for producing NIEs rests on the National Intelligence Council (NIC), an entity 2
within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The NIC consists of senior
analysts from the Intelligence Community and substantive experts from the public and private
sector. After a decision is made to prepare an NIE, terms of reference (TORs) that define the
major issues and drafting responsibilities are circulated to relevant intelligence agencies. One or
more analysts, either from the ODNI or an intelligence agency, is asked to prepare a draft NIE.
The draft estimates is then coordinated by senior officials of all intelligence agencies in a process
that can be quite lengthy. Thereafter, NIEs are formally considered by the heads of relevant
intelligence agencies and the DNI. The National Security Act requires that NIEs include,
“whenever the Council considers appropriate, alternate views held by elements of the intelligence 3
community.” Thus they may contain text, or “footnotes,” that pose alternative views from the
judgments in the NIE. The conclusions of NIEs, however, are understood to reflect the official 4
position of the DNI. Once approved, the NIE is forwarded to the President, senior policymakers,
and the two congressional intelligence committees.
In drafting NIEs, analysts marshal evidence from all sources available to the Intelligence
Community—human intelligence, signals intelligence, overhead surveillance, and others
including the exploitation of open sources (foreign media and, increasingly, websites). The
lengthy drafting and coordination process includes participation by agency analysts and
occasionally outside experts with varying perspectives. At their best, NIEs provide a careful
assessment of an international situation based on extensive collection and careful analysis that
1 Mark M. Lowenthal, Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2000), p. 88.
2 For background on the NIC and the National Intelligence Officers, see http://www.dni.gov/nic/NIC_home.html. The
NIC was established by Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Stansfield Turner in 1979; a statutory basis was included
in the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY1993 (P.L. 102-496, 106 Stat. 3191). Though composed of analysts from
various government agencies and the public and private sector, the NIC has always depended heavily on CIA analysts
for research and drafting NIEs. The NIC originally reported to the DCI in his role as head of the Intelligence
Community, but the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-458) transferred the NIC to
the newly created Office of the DNI. Many, if not most, current NIOs are not CIA career analysts and some observers
believe that CIA’s preeminent analytical role has diminished. Nevertheless, CIA has the broadest analytical coverage of
any agency and the largest number of analysts and is likely to be heavily involved in the preparation of future NIEs.
3 50 U.S.C. 403-3(b)(2)(A).
4 Yet according to Robert Gates, then Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, writing in 1987: “More than once, the
late Director [of Central Intelligence] William Casey (and probably his predecessors) approved an estimate with which
he disagreed personally, and separately conveyed his personal view to policymakers.” Robert Gates, “The CIA and
American Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1987/1988, p. 227.
provides policymakers with insights into the opportunities and risks that the United States will
In general, NIEs on topics that involve sensitive collection or analysis of trends that are largely
unknown to outside experts are the most valuable. On the other hand, NIEs addressing broad
topics as the future of democracy in the Middle East or the likely evolution of China in the next
20 years may not necessarily yield more accurate conclusions or more perceptive insights than the
work of leading academic experts. Some observers argue that intelligence estimates that deal with
such topics inevitably suffer from the absence of scrutiny by the wide and disparate community
of scholars that challenges and debates conclusions of scholarly works in the open literature and
ultimately has an important influence on public opinion. Most NIEs, on the other hand, describe
the environment in which national security policy choices will likely be made in the foreseeable
future, with analysis incorporating information that is not available to the general public.
At a minimum, NIEs require that differences among analysts be confronted and described. This is
an important contribution as policymakers need to know what is known by the Intelligence
Community and what remains unknown and what conclusions drawn by the government’s most
Historically, some NIEs have been essential to national security policymaking. During the Cold
War, NIEs on Soviet strategic forces provided an agreed-upon set of figures that were an integral 5
part of plans for U.S. force structures and negotiations of a series of arms control treaties. U.S.
policymaking, however, occasionally is based on directives by Presidents or senior officials that
have not been coordinated throughout the executive branch or with Congress. Some policy
makers assume that their own long experience and extensive personal contacts gives them better
insights than even the most senior intelligence officials. In considering major new initiatives,
there can be an obsessive concern with the potential for leaks that limits discussion to a very
small circle of advisers and excludes much of the Intelligence Community which is independent
of political appointees.
There are other inherent limitations to the NIE process. NIEs are often prepared on broad issues
that may involve not just foreign states or international groups but also the influence of U.S.
policy or the interplay of U.S. with foreign actors. Although some NIEs will address the
implications of several broad policy options, detailed treatments of U.S. plans have traditionally
been defined as beyond the cognizance of intelligence agencies. In many cases, other agencies
will have little inclination to share sensitive planning with the substantial number of intelligence
analysts involved in the preparation of NIEs. In other cases, U.S. plans will depend more on
future initiatives such as legislation that intelligence analysts would be unable to predict with
5 In an oft-reported comment in 1967 President Lyndon Johnson stated, “I wouldn’t want to be quoted on this but
we’ve spent 35 or 40 billion dollars on the space program. And if nothing else had come out of it except the knowledge
we’ve gained from space photography, it would be worth 10 times what the whole program has cost. Because tonight
we know how many missiles the enemy has and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we
didn’t need to do. We were building things we didn’t need to build. We were harboring fears we didn’t need to harbor.”
Quoted in Eye in the Sky: the Story of the Corona Spy Satellites, ed. by Dwayne A. Day, John M. Logsdon, and Brian
Latell (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), p. 1. NIEs on the Soviet capabilities have been declassified
and published in Intentions and Capabilities: Estimates on Soviet Strategic Forces, 1950-1983, ed. by Donald P. Steury
(Washington: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1996).
Intelligence agencies are committed—by statute6 and as a matter of professional integrity—to
prepare analyses that are unbiased and nonpartisan. At times the bureaucratic process that
produces NIEs can shape the conclusions in ways that reflect agency perspectives; this can be the
case, for instance, when intelligence judgments about threat environments have significant
implication for U.S. military force structure. Moreover, if NIEs are tied too closely and too
publicly to public debates there is a concern that intelligence agencies will either be inclined to
emphasize evidence supporting an Administration’s preferred policy options or avoid 7
Furthermore, it has been argued that NIEs are not necessarily the most important contribution of
intelligence agencies, which produce thousands of assessments of varying complexity in a given
year. A 9/11 Commission staff statement noted: “Some officials, including Deputy DCI [Director
of Central Intelligence] John McLaughlin, are skeptical about the importance of comprehensive
estimates. McLaughlin has been in charge of the estimate process. He told us such estimates are
time-consuming to prepare. Judgments are watered down in negotiations. Conclusions may 8
duplicate those already circulated in more specific papers.” A review of intelligence on Iraq by
senior intelligence officials undertaken for the then-DCI in mid-2004 noted:
NIEs rarely represent new analysis or bring to bear more expertise than already exists in
analytic offices; indeed, drafters of NIEs are usually the same analysts from whose work the
NIE is drawn. Little independent knowledge or informed outside opinion is incorporated in
estimative products. The preparation of an NIE therefore consists primarily of compiling
judgments from previous products and debating points of disagreement....
The fundamental question is whether National Intelligence Estimates add value to the
existing body of analytic work. Historically, with few exceptions, NIEs have not carried
great weight in policy deliberations although customers have often used them to promote 9
their own agendas.
6 50 U.S.C. 403-3(a)(2).
7 When an Administration is in the process of choosing a policy option there can also be a temptation for intelligence
analysts to become advocates; Robert Gates claims that “Far from kowtowing to policymakers, there is sometimes a
strong impulse on the part of intelligence officers to show that a policy or decision is misguided or wrong, to poke an
analytical finger in the policy eye. Policymakers know this and understandably resent it. To protect the independence of
the analyst while keeping such impulses in check is one of the toughest jobs of intelligence agency managers.” “The
CIA and Foreign Policy,” p. 221.
8 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States [the 9/11 Commission], The Performance of the
Intelligence Community, Staff Statement No. 11, p.5. The drafters of the staff statement noted, however, that other
officials “stress the importance of such estimates as a process that surfaces and clarifies disagreements. Through
coordination and vetting views, the Community comes to collective understanding of the nature of the threat it faces—
what is known, unknown, and a discussion of how to close these gaps.” Ibid.
9 Central Intelligence Agency, “Intelligence and Analysis on Iraq: Issues for the Intelligence Community;” July 29, 2004.
(The document was the third in a series of reports by the Kerr Group (Richard Kerr, Thomas Wolfe, Rebecca Donegan,
and Aris Pappas) to support an internal evaluation of intelligence analysis associated with the war on Iraq. It is available on
the CIA website at https://www.cia.gov/csi/studies/vol49no3/html_files/Collection_Analysis_Iraq_5.htm.) Some observers
believe that the Intelligence Community’s greatest contribution may lie in the area of specialized studies or short-term
reports that are based on information that only intelligence agencies have acquired and that needs to be analyzed and
disseminated within a relatively short time frame. Such analytical products do not, in most cases, provide the basis for an
entirely new policy but can have an important influence on the development of policy (or military campaigns). They can
contribute invaluable new information and analysis that will shape the policymaking process.
Pursuant to the National Security Act, NIEs are prepared “for the Government,” not just executive 10
branch officials. Accordingly, NIEs are forwarded to the two congressional intelligence agencies
(the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee 11
on Intelligence (HPSCI))—and, on occasion, other congressional committees. Use of NIEs by
committees will vary. The two intelligence committees oversee the activities of all intelligence
agencies, including their analytical efforts, and thus they review NIEs on a continuing basis.
Other committees—especially the armed services and international relations committees—may,
along with the intelligence committees, be especially interested in NIEs that deal with issues that
directly affect upcoming U.S. foreign and military decisions.
Although usually NIEs have been produced at the request of executive branch officials and have
been used primarily by executive branch policy makers, NIEs have at times been the subject of 12
considerable congressional interest. Congress has from time to time informally requested NIEs
(as was the case with the NIE on Iraqi WMDs produced in 2002, as discussed below), but the
House intelligence authorization bill (H.R. 2082) for the current fiscal year included a provision
(section 407) mandating an NIE on global climate change. The Administration has resisted this
This section sets a harmful precedent. The production of intelligence products on topics of
interest to the Executive Branch or Congress should be left to cooperative relationships and
established dialogue and should not be reflected in law, particularly in a manner that
impinges on the flexibility of IC [Intelligence Community] professionals to approach a task 13
in the most appropriate manner.
Subsequently, the conference report on H.R. 2082 omitted the statutory requirement for an NIE,
but noted that the DNI had stated that an assessment on the effects of global climate change was
being prepared and the “conferees expect that the national intelligence assessment will be 14
transmitted to Congress in a timely manner.”
Congress included a requirement for an NIE on Iran in the FY2007 Defense Authorization Act
(P.L. 109-364, section 1213) to be submitted in classified form. The statute also stated that,
“Consistent with the protection of intelligence sources and methods, an unclassified summary of
the key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate should be submitted.” The Key
Judgments of NIE on Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities were released in early December
10 50 U.S.C. 403-3(b)(2)(A).
11 L. Britt Snider, “Sharing Secrets with Lawmakers: Congress as a User of Intelligence,” Central Intelligence Agency,
Center for the Study of Intelligence, February 1997, p. 24. Snider’s monograph although published in 1997 remains the
most authoritative analysis of the use of intelligence by the Congress.
12 For a discussion of extended controversy in 1959 over estimates of Soviet missiles, see David M. Barrett, The CIA &
Congress: the Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), pp. 323-330.
In another instance in 1980 Senator Moynihan discussed press disclosures of NIEs regarding an NIE dealing with the
strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Congressional Record, May 15, 1980, pp. 11371-
13 U.S., Office of Management and Budget, Statement of Administration Policy: H.R. 2082—Intelligence Authorization
Act for Fiscal Year 2008, May 9, 2007.
14 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008: Conference Report,
H.Rept. 110-478, December 6, 2007, p. 100.
2007 apparently without prior transmittal to Congress. The accompanying statement by Principal
Deputy DNI Donald Kerr stated, without reference to the statute: “The decision to release an
unclassified version of the Key Judgments of the NIE was made when it was determined that 15
doing so was in the interest of our nation’s security.”
Some observers suggest that NIEs could better support congressional deliberations if they were
the subject of further hearings by relevant committees. More extensive hearings by relevant
committees would provide opportunities for Members to assess the validity of the information on
which the NIEs were based and the extent of support for conclusions reached by the drafters of
the NIE although there would inevitably be concerns about enlarging the number of persons
exposed to highly sensitive intelligence, especially detailed discussion of intelligence sources and
methods. Other observers caution, in addition, that making sensitive NIEs the subjects of
congressional hearings, especially when an important vote is approaching, could focus media
attention on intelligence judgments that are only part of a complex decision-making process.
There is a concern that hearings have the potential to undermine the statutory mandate that 16
national intelligence be objective and “independent of political considerations.“ It is also
possible that the mechanics of an NIE might be misinterpreted, especially the ways in which main
and alternate views are set forth and that debate could result in “cherry picking” views that are
congenial to one position or another.
NIE production schedules could also be more closely coordinated with the Legislative Branch to
ensure that the Intelligence Community addresses major topics on which Congress expects to
consider legislation. On the other hand, some observers argue that Congress might draw up lists
of NIEs that would overly tax limited analytical resources and infringe on the President’s
authority to direct the work of the Intelligence Community.
The influence of intelligence assessments on congressional debates offers cautionary lessons. In
late 1990, intelligence assessments (albeit not an NIE) concluded that Operation Desert Storm
(that became the Persian Gulf War of 1991) would last at least six months and cause many
Largely on the basis of these dire predictions several Senators on the SSCI—including its
chairman, David L. Boren of Oklahoma—as well as the Armed Services Committee
Chairman, Sam Nunn of Georgia, ultimately voted against the resolution authorizing the
President to send troops to the Gulf. Later, when it turned out that coalition forces achieved
immediate air superiority and the ground war ended in a matter of days with relatively few
American casualties, the Senators who had voted in the negative were understandably upset.
Some had lost considerable political support in their home states as a result of their votes.
Senator Nunn later said the vote not only had hurt his credibility as chairman of the SASC
[Senate Armed Services Committee] but also had removed any thoughts he might have had
about running for President, knowing that his vote would have been a “major debating point”
in any election campaign. After all, they were Senators supposedly “in the know” and yet
15 Statement by the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Dr. Donald M. Kerr, December 3, 2007. The
previous month DNI McConnell had indicated that unclassified key judgments of the Iran NIE would not be released.
He explained: “I don’t want to have a situation where the young analysts are writing something because they know it’s
going to be a public debate, or political debate. They should be writing it to call it as it is. I believe that we will be
better off in our community if we can do that at a classified level.” Remarks by Director of National Intelligence
Admiral Michael McConnell at the AIS Journalism Conference, November 13, 2007, Federal News Service Transcript.
16 50 U.S.C. 403-3(a)(2).
appeared to have egregiously misread the situation. Most felt “sandbagged” by the 17
A former staffer was quoted as saying that “the real problem for the committee was that it was
never given “blue team” information [information on U.S. military capabilities]. It was never
advised, for example, that stealth aircraft were to be used. It was never provided an assessment of 18
our forces versus theirs.”
Intelligence analysis is inherently an intellectual activity that requires knowledge, judgment, and
a degree of intuition. These qualities are usually not quantifiable nor can they be simply
mandated. Erroneous estimates can occur and have occurred in recent years. The history of the
Iraq NIE prepared in 2002, Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, is
instructive in this regard. The fact that Iraq had had WMD in the past and had previously used
them both against Iran and regime opponents within Iraq was well known. That Iraq had violated
agreements made after the conclusion of Desert Storm in 1991 and expelled international
inspectors in 1998 was also incontestable. It was also evident that Saddam Hussein’s regime had
demonstrated no eagerness to comply with more recent mandates of the U.N. and to cooperate
with U.N. inspectors.
Because, however, much of the public debate focused on Iraq’s then-current WMD capabilities,
the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked for an NIE “on the status of Iraq’s
programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and delivery system, the status of the Iraqi
military forces, including their readiness and willingness to fight, the effects a U.S.-led attack on
Iraq would have on its neighbors, and Saddam Hussein’s likely response to a U.S. military 19
campaign designed to effect regime change in Iraq.” The NIE was requested on an immediate
basis. Operating under intense pressure, the NIE was drafted and made available to Congress four 20
weeks later, on October 1, 2002. An unclassified White Paper, containing many of the NIE’s 21
judgments, was issued shortly thereafter.
In large measure the NIE reinforced judgments that had previously been made in earlier
intelligence products. The NIE maintained:
Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of U.N.
resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as
missiles with ranges in excess of U.N. restrictions; if left unchecked, it will probably have a
nuclear weapon during this decade.
Baghdad hides large portions of Iraq’s WMD efforts. Revelations after the Gulf war starkly 22
demonstrate the extensive efforts undertaken by Iraq to deny information.
17 Snider, “Sharing Secrets with Lawmakers,” p. 49. Arguably, a full-scale NIE may have been more reliable.
18 Quoted in ibid., p. 50.
19 S.Rept. 108-301, p. 12.
20 A summary was later made public in July 2003; at http://www.dni.gov/nic/special_keyjudgements.html.
21 The White Paper is available at https://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/iraq_wmd/Iraq_Oct_2002.pdf.
22 Director of Central Intelligence, Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, October 2002, p. 1.
There was a consensus of all agencies that the Iraqis were determined to reconstitute their WMD
programs and had made some progress in this effort. This judgment was pervasive among
intelligence analysts in this country and abroad (indeed even some senior Iraqi military leaders
believed Iraq had WMDs). In setting forth the evidence for WMD reconstitution, however, the
NIE relied on evidence and analysis that was subsequently determined to be deficient. To a large
extent the judgment that Iraq had begun reconstituting its nuclear capabilities depended on
information regarding aluminum tubes that most, but not all, agencies judged to be designed for a
uranium enrichment effort. There was a fairly wide agreement that Saddam Hussein planned to
reconstitute the WMD programs once Iraq got out from under the sanctions regime.
In retrospect, few would deny that Saddam Hussein had not relinquished his ultimate goal of
having viable WMD capabilities and his failure to comply with U.N. obligations regarding
inspections, but it is clear that the Intelligence Community did not adequately flag the inherent 23
uncertainties of the evidence supporting Iraq’s WMD capabilities in mid-2002. Intelligence
agencies had provided copious information about Iraqi WMD programs, but ultimately did not
reach accurate conclusions. In part, this failure resulted from the difficulty of the target, but it is
apparent in retrospect that intelligence officials provided Congress with an over-generalized
estimate that relied heavily on widely-accepted judgments (a tendency that has been described as
“cognitive bias”), highly limited collection from human sources (and some of this reporting was
wrong), and did not offer a better sense of the ambiguities and limitations of the available
evidence. In particular, in this view, the Intelligence Community conveyed a sense of dynamism
in regard to Iraqi WMD programs that was not justified by evidence available.
This NIE has been much debated. The Senate Intelligence Committee has reported two extensive, 24
and highly critical, assessments of the NIE. In 2004 the Committee concluded that:
Most of the major key judgments in the Intelligence Community’s October 2002
National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass
Destruction, either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence
reporting. A series of failures, particularly in analytic trade craft, led to the 25
mischaracterization of the intelligence.
23 Significantly, the NIE did not offer a contrarian case that Saddam Hussein did not have an active WMD program
underway and was bluffing. As far as is known, no one in the Intelligence Community made the assessment that Iraq
had only minimal WMD capabilities. Apparently no one asked the question posed by Joseph Nye, a former chairman of
the National Intelligence Council: “What would it take for this estimate to be dramatically wrong? What could cause a
radically different outcome?” Nye noted: “Experts often resist this exercise. Since they know their country or region
and have already presented all the plausible scenarios, why waste any effort on scenarios that are by definition highly
unlikely? The answer is that such questions help to alert the policymakers to low-probability but high-impact
contingencies against which they might plan. It also informs intelligence agencies about obscure indicators about which
they should be collecting information.” Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Peering into the Future,” Foreign Affairs, July-August
1994, p. 89.
24 U.S. Congress, 108th Congress, 2d session, Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. Intelligence Community’s
Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq, S.Rept. 108-301, July 9, 2004; 109th Congress, 2d session, Postwar Findings
About Iraq’s WMD Programs and Links to Terrorism and How They Compare with Prewar Assessments, September 8,
25 S.Rept. 108-301, p. 14.
Subsequently, the Commission on the Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of
Mass Destruction, headed by Laurence Silberman and former Senator Charles Robb also devoted 26
attention to the NIE’s shortcomings.
After the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Iraq Survey Team, composed of experts
from various U.S. agencies looked at all evidence available on the ground in Iraq and did not find
evidence that Iraq had an active WMD effort. They did agree that there was a likelihood of
reconstitution once sanctions were lifted. The Iraq Survey Team concluded that Saddam Hussein
saw many benefits to an ongoing WMD program but was primarily concerned with seeing
sanctions lifted. The Team concluded that Saddam Hussein viewed Iran as Iraq’s principal enemy 27
in the region and that he believed WMD were necessary to counter Iran.
An important question is the extent to which the faulty NIE influenced the congressional vote on
the legislation that was enacted as the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq (P.L.
terrorists, etc., and these judgments were reflected in the legislation.
P.L. 107-243 did not, however, focus solely on WMD; it emphasized a long pattern of Iraqi
violations of U.N. resolutions and its “brutal repression of its civilian population thereby
threatening international peace and security in the regions.” It also cited Iraq’s support of terrorist 29
organizations that “threaten the lives and security of United States citizens.” A problem for the
Intelligence Community was the heavy emphasis on WMD programs in the public debate prior to
congressional consideration of the resolution that tended to obscure other factors that were not 30
dependent on technical analyses of highly limited evidence.
Also instructive is the more recent NIE, Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United 31
States, prepared in April 2006 with the key judgments officially released in September 2006
26 See the report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass
Destruction, March 31, 2005.
27 See Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD with Addendums, September 2004,
Vol. I, pp. 1, 29.
28 One clause of P.L. 107-243 argued that Iraq “remains in material and unacceptable breach of its international
obligations by, among other things, continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons
capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations.”
Another clause stated: “Whereas Iraq’s demonstrated capability and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction,
the risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United
States or its Armed Forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so, and the extreme magnitude of
harm that would result to the United States and its citizens from such an attack, combine to justify action by the United
States to defend itself.”
29 In addition to WMD concerns, there has been ongoing controversy on the planning for stabilizing Iraq once Saddam
Hussein’s military had been overcome and the regime removed; intelligence officials have maintained that estimates of
the difficulties involved in this effort were accurate and were detailed prior to the commencement of hostilities. See
“Intelligence and Analysis on Iraq,” p. 2; also, Paul R. Pillar, “Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq,” Foreign
Affairs, March/April 2006.
30 See CRS Report RS21696, U.S. Intelligence and Policymaking: The Iraq Experience, by Richard A. Best Jr.
31 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate
‘Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States’ dated April 2006,” http://odni.gov/press_releases/
after several accounts had appeared in the media. The NIE’s Key Judgments reflected the
Intelligence Community’s conclusion that the global jihadist movement “is spreading and
adapting to counterterrorism efforts.” The jihadists, the NIE concluded, “will use improvised
explosive devices and suicide attacks focused primarily on soft targets to implement their
asymmetric warfare strategy, and that they will attempt to conduct sustained terrorist attacks in
urban environments.” Much public commentary on the NIE was directed towards its conclusions
that the “Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of
U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist
mo ve ment.”
The detailed analysis that supported these conclusions has not been made public, but it worth
noting that the NIE does give some generalized attention to policy approaches for the United 32
States and its allies that could affect the future of jihadist terrorism. The NIE referred to the
possibility of “greater pluralism and more responsive political systems in Muslim majority
nations,” and the possibility that jihadists in Iraq will be perceived as having failed. It maintains
that countering jihadists will require “coordinated multilateral efforts that go well beyond 33
operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders.”
These brief references hardly exhaust the factors that will affect trends in global terrorism over
the next decade. The NIE did not apparently address the question that has been the focus of much
outside academic analysis—the overall religious and philosophical challenge by radical Islam to
Western values. Arguably, a dialogue between Western intellectuals and Islamic leaders could be
part of the equation.
The conclusions of this NIE may suggest a number of possible responses. Although NIEs can lay
out in general terms the possible ramifications of different options, some observers believe that
neither the drafters of the NIE nor the Intelligence Community as a whole should be viewed as
best placed to propose alternative approaches for U.S. policy makers. Intelligence analysts can
provide tentative assessments of the potential effect of various U.S. initiatives, but, according to
this perspective, the full range of options will have to be developed elsewhere. Ultimately,
policies are frequently based not only on an appreciation of the international environment and the
threat, but also on the capabilities of the United States and its allies and budgetary and political
constraints that they face. These latter factors are not the responsibilities of intelligence analysts.
Responding to another congressional request, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence
forwarded an NIE entitled Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead in January 34
2007 with unclassified key judgments released to the public. The Key Judgments were
accompanied by several pages of text describing the NIE process and an explanation of estimative
language. Changes implemented subsequent to the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 were noted,
32 The NIE notes “vulnerabilities in the jihadist movement have emerged that, if fully exposed and exploited, could
begin to slow the spread of the movement.”
34 See http://odni.gov/press_releases/20070202_release.pdf.
specifically new procedures to integrate formal reviews of source reporting and technical
judgements and the application of more rigorous standards. The document notes that Agency
heads are now required to submit “formal assessments that highlight the strengths, weaknesses,
and overall credibility of their sources used in developing the critical judgments of the NIE.” In
addition, a textbox is to be included in future NIEs to explain the meaning of terms such as “we
judge” or “we assess” and the differences between high, moderate, and low confidence in various
judgments. The use of such terms has occasionally been a source of confusion when they had
come to have accepted meanings among analysts that were not well understood by policymakers.
Written at a time of intense congressional concern about the future of Iraq and in response to a
congressional request, the NIE’s Key Judgments included a finding that the overall security
situation in Iraq will continue to deteriorate unless serious efforts are made to reverse existing
conditions. The NIE reviewed the various challenges facing the Iraqis—mutually antagonistic
ethnic communities, the weakness of Iraqi Security Forces, and the extremist groups such as Al
Qaeda that act as “accelerators” of the inter-sectarian struggle. The NIE maintained that
“Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential
stabilizing element in Iraq.” Looking at the regional environment, the NIE noted that although
some of Iraq’s neighbors provide support that “clearly intensifies the conflict in Iraq,” the
involvement of outside actors “is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for
stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq’s internal sectarian dynamics.”
Undoubtedly, the classified NIE provides the evidentiary background of these judgments and a
discussion of the extent of the Intelligence Community’s confidence in the NIE’s conclusions.
On December 3, 2007 the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released unclassified
Key Judgments of a NIE prepared in November 2007, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and 35
Capabilities. Donald Kerr, the Principal Deputy DNI stated in a covering memorandum that 36
numerous statements based on a 2005 assessment had been made on the record. “Since our
understanding of Iran’s capabilities has changed, we felt it was important to release this 37
information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available.”
The Key Judgments of the 2007 NIE state that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003,
Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that
Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” The NIE assessed
that the program was “was halted primarily in response to international pressure” and argued that
this assessment “suggests that Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we 38
35 Available at http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20071203_release.pdf.
36 On January 18, 2007, then-DNI John Negroponte testified to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence:
“Our assessment is that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons. It is continuing to pursue uranium
enrichment and has shown more interest in protracting negotiations than reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution.”
Transcript, Hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Annual Threat Assessment,
37 Statement by the Principal DNI, December 3, 2007.
38 For further discussion of U.S. policy towards Iran, see CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy
The dramatic shift in analytical conclusions received extensive attention from the media and
Members of Congress given Iranian policies in the region, Iranian President Ahamdinejad’s
campaign against Israel’s legitimacy, and the efforts of the U.S. and European allies to impose
sanctions on Iran until it complies with United Nations Security Council demands that it cease
uranium enrichment. A factor in the background may have been media reports that a U.S. strike 39
against Iranian nuclear sites had been under consideration. The NIE’s Key Judgments did not
indicate that Iran had ceased its nuclear efforts but, in the view of some observers, it undermined
the urgency of the Administration’s efforts.
Few would argue that the conclusions drawn by the NIE should not have been brought to the
attention of policymakers in the Executive Branch and Congress, but a number of observers have
argued that the Key Judgments overemphasized the importance of the nuclear weapon design and
weaponization work at the expense of ongoing uranium conversion and enrichment efforts that
would be essential to achieving nuclear weapons capabilities. Dennis Ross, a retired diplomat
with long experience in the Middle East, noted: “While nothing has changed, the NIE has created 40
a new story line.” According to Ross, the NIE will unwisely focus public attention on nuclear
weapons per se rather than Iran’s larger nuclear effort. He writes:
Weaponizing is not the issue, developing fissionable materials is. Because, compared with
producing fissionable material, which makes up the core of nuclear bombs, weaponizing it is 41
neither particularly difficult nor expensive.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued: “we could be witnessing not a halt of the
Iranian weapons program—as the NIE asserts—but a subtle, ultimately more dangerous, version 42
of it that will phase in the warhead when fissile material production has matured.”
A focus of the Key Judgments was the assessment Iran ended its nuclear program “in fall 2003”. .
. “primarily in response to international pressure.” Observers have noted that the Key Judgments
did not indicate whether such “international pressure” included the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s
regime in April 2003. It is plausible that Iranian officials, like the U.S. Intelligence Community,
may have believed that Iraq had WMD capabilities and, when that turned out to be not the case,
made a decision that its own nuclear program was no longer necessary. The released Key
Judgments do not, however, address this issue.
The NIE’s Key Judgments also suggest that “some combination of threats of intensified
international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security,
prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as
credible—prompt Tehran to extent the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” This
judgment is based on an unacknowledged assumption being that Iran’s goals can be
accommodated by other countries, including the U.S., if they are pursued without an active WMD
program. This crucial issue also is not addressed in the released Key Judgments.
39 See, for instance, Tim Shipman, “Will he Bomb....or Is He Bluffing? George Bush Has Ramped Up the Rhetoric
Against Iran. Is he Serious?,” Sunday Telegraph (London), September 2, 2007, p. 15.
40 Dennis Ross, “The Can’t-Win Kids,” The New Republic, December 11, 2007.
42 Henry A. Kissinger, “Misleading the Iran Report,” Washington Post, December 13, 2007, p. A35.
To what extent the release of the Key Judgments of the NIE has changed the “story line” of U.S.
policy remains uncertain. Observers suggest that intelligence analysis with all its inevitable
uncertainties and ambiguities seldom yields a water-tight argument for a new policy. Policy
builds upon the factual base that intelligence analysis provides but it is also built upon
assessments of our own national interests that are beyond the mandate of the Intelligence
Community. Recognizing that any Iranian success in testing a nuclear weapon in the near future
would seriously undermine confidence in its core capabilities, the Intelligence Community has
presented important evidence about current Iranian nuclear efforts. These facts do not change
U.S. interests, but only how they are pursued and how they are explained to the public. Although
the “story line” may have to be adjusted, the realities of U.S. interests and the failure of the
Iranian regime to abide by its treaty commitments remain.
Congress is and will continue to be an important consumer of national intelligence, but there are
concerns that heavy emphasis on mandating NIEs may not support the legislative process to the
extent that some anticipate. NIEs can provide the Intelligence Community’s best evidence and
analysis on major issues of national security and can highlight areas where information is lacking,
but they usually require lengthy preparation and coordination before they can be disseminated.
The history of the NIE on Iraqi WMD suggests that compressing the production schedule can be
counterproductive. Moreover, conclusions of NIEs may not be informed by knowledge of
initiatives planned or underway by others in the executive or legislative branches. A more public
role for NIEs in debates on national security policy issues could obscure their inherent limitations
and distort the discussion of the policy issues.
In some cases, Congress may find intelligence assessments or briefings prepared in a less
structured way and within tighter time constraints better serve its legislative needs than formal
NIEs. The creation of the Office of the DNI provides a focal point from which the analytical
capabilities of all intelligence agencies can be brought to bear on given issues, even ones that are
narrowly focused. It is considered likely that a combination of NIEs on some topics,
supplemented by more limited assessments supported by an ongoing dialogue with intelligence
analysts, may provide the most effective support to the legislative process.
NIEs are only one element of the national security decision-making process. They can outline the
effects of various policy approaches in general terms, but it is unlikely that they will become the
vehicles for detailed consideration of options that depend on the interrelationships of executive
branch and congressional decisionmaking. NIEs will arguably be most useful when they provide
a thorough assessment of a given international situation, laying out different perspectives among
analysts, and providing a realistic indication of the limitations of the evidence available.
Richard A. Best Jr.
Specialist in National Defense