Are these estimates really necessary?

Lost in the debate over the aborted appointment of Chas Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council was a point we have made occasionally — the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) produced by that body have little value and are now recognized as such. Mark Lowenthal, president of the Intelligence & Security Academy demonstrates this in today’s Washington Post.

Lowenthal led a team that conducted a biannual review of intelligence performance. He finds that the NIEs are “long, ponderous, sometimes tortuously written, and largely lacking in influence.” In addition, though Lowenthal doesn’t say so, the NIEs don’t appear to be very reliable when it comes to the stuff that matters. The 2002 NIE estimate claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction seems to have been wrong. The 2007 NIE claiming that Iran stopped work on a nuclear weapon in 2003 strikes many as dubious.

When Lowenthal’s study team asked senior policymakers which intelligence products they found most useful, the NIEs came in last or next to last each time. This suggests that the NIE is to national security policymaking roughly as the high school guidance counselor’s recommendation is to college admission.


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