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In a timely analysis, a senior career U.S. diplomat long experienced in the area of intelligence discusses that function as it relates to policy formulation. Among other episodes, he discusses the pitfalls that were involved in the intelligence concerning Iraq and WMDs. — Ed.

Policymaker: Know Thine (Intelligence) Analyst

You know something has gone wrong when products of the intelligence community constitute the centerpiece of a major national security decision. With the exception of specific warnings of imminent danger to U.S. security or vital national interests (i.e., Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962), intelligence should serve as only one of several essential inputs to the policy-maker.1 These include cultural, economic, and political factors, estimates of foreign leadership motivations, constraints and intentions, and sensible evaluations of our own true interests, as well as those of our traditional partners in each region of the world. The overwhelming use of U.S. intelligence products to justify the U.S. military intervention in Iraq in 2003 has stimulated widespread discussion of the appropriate role of the intelligence community in the formulation of U.S. national security policy. Apart from the vital “WARNING” function, where does intelligence fit into the U.S. national security process?

The Primary Role of the Intelligence Community: Bringing Order out of Information Chaos
The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the dual-hatted position of director of central intelligence (DCI) and CIA director. Besides the DCI, the 1947 act created only one other statutory position in the CIA: the director of warning.2

The CIA absorbed the clandestine operation of the Second World War Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and established a super Directorate of Intelligence designed to digest, synthesize, and analyze for national security policymakers the extraordinary volumes of data arriving from many classified and unclassified sources around the world.

Wearing his DCI hat, the head of the CIA was given responsibility for coordinating the work of intelligence departments and units in fifteen government agencies. The most important of these are in the departments of State, Defense, and Justice. Two of the largest organizations in the community in terms of personnel and budget are the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The former deals with information captured from the airways, or “signals intelligence.” The latter operates the worldwide system of satellites that transmit high-resolution photographic information in real time. The amount of raw intelligence harvested from clandestine sources, both technical and human, is vast. But an even greater volume of intelligence is obtained openly from reporting by Foreign Service officers at American embassies, foreign government documents and declarations, and foreign media.

Because of the sheer volume of data that arrives in Washington daily, the professional intelligence analysts in the various agencies bear the heavy responsibility for providing concise summaries and plausible conclusions based on the most reliable reports, as well as their own expertise in the countries, regions, and functional sectors that they cover. This process continues on a daily basis, with national security policy officials receiving tailored packages based on their respective areas or sectors of responsibility, from the president on down to country desk officers. In virtually all cases, the professionals who prepare the summaries with accompanying analyses are highly knowledgeable about and have extensive experience with the areas they cover. They usually know relevant languages and have strong groundings in foreign cultures, politics, and economic systems. Their mandate is to “tell it like it is” without any policy bias. To make sure that policy bias does not infiltrate the process, there is an informal system of “competitive analysis.” Analysts in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence (DDI), the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), and the military’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) work from essentially the same raw data in support of their respective policy levels. The fact that they see one another’s work and meet regularly usually acts as a check on the infiltration of policy bias.

National Intelligence Estimates Bring In-Depth Expertise to Bear on High-priority Issues
About twenty-five times a year, the intelligence community is charged with supporting decision making on issues of high-policy interest. For example, U.S. national security leaders have been grappling with contrasting policy options in Iran ever since the rise of the reform movement in that country in the early 1990s. Should we have a policy of engagement in order to encourage reforms in Iran, or should we assume that Iran’s anti-American posture is not likely to change no matter how its domestic situation evolves? This is the type of policy question that requires deeper study, extended reflection, and in-depth discussion among analysts on a whole range of issues and trends.

The intelligence community deals with these weightier issues through the mechanism of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). All of the intelligence components are invited to participate and contribute draft sections of the final document under the coordination of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). This small body of veteran analysts and operatives from a variety of agencies and disciplines serves as the community-wide coordinating arm for the director of Central Intelligence. The top officials in the NIC are called National Intelligence officers (NIOs) for Asia, Africa, Latin America, nonproliferation, terrorism, and so on.

Whenever a decision is taken to prepare an NIE, the NIO for the region or sector concerned is almost always assigned to be the coordinator of the process. The NIO establishes the terms of reference and negotiates the division of labor for the preparation of the different sections. In the hypothetical case of an NIE about Iran, the CIA would prepare the section on Iran’s support for terrorism and clandestine political operations in the Middle East; State/INR might prepare the section on Iran’s political dynamics; the DIA might put together a document on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Intelligence Process Is Not Immune to Tampering from on High
The overall process that brings the intelligence community to interact with the policy community works very well as long as the analysts are allowed to “tell it like it is.” The process remains healthy as long as intelligence products serve as one of several major inputs for the development of policy in conjunction with considerations of U.S. national interests, relations with other interested governments, economic and business considerations, and the likely evolution of events in the target country or region. The process breaks down in those few cases in which policymakers seek to influence the intelligence product to conform to their predetermined policy conclusions. In short, there are times, fortunately infrequent, when policymakers want the intelligence community to tell them what they want to hear.

The ability of the community to resist policy level pressure varies from agency to agency. In the State Department, the secretary and approximately thirty other senior officials have a tradition of valuing the independent analysis of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In State there is virtually no separation between the analysts and the policymakers due in large part to INR’s small size. In other agencies, especially DIA and CIA, analysis must pass through several layers before it emerges at the policy level. The higher the level in these agencies, the greater the danger that the work of the originating analyst will be nuanced to conform to the prevailing political winds. When the U.S. presidency applies pressure in search of justification for an emerging high-profile national security policy, it is virtually impossible for the DCI and his senior colleagues to resist.

A typical example of intelligence manipulation took place in 1984 when President Reagan’s DCI, William Casey, ordered the preparation of an NIE on Mexico. The exercise was launched during the height of the cold war against a backdrop of growing instability in Central America. Nicaragua was in the hands of the Marxist Sandinistas who clearly had pro-Cuban and pro-Soviet tendencies. In addition, there was convincing intelligence that the Nicaraguan government was providing arms to Marxist guerrillas seeking to destabilize the elected Christian Democratic government in neighboring Salvador. Because of this intelligence, President Jimmy Carter decided to reverse a long-standing arms embargo policy and provide weapons to the Salvadoran government a few months prior to his departing from the White House in January 1981.

Despite efforts by the Reagan administration to forge a political consensus around the dangers of Marxist subversion threatening regimes in Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, there was considerable skepticism among Democrats in Congress. They saw the main problem as repression and human rights violations committed against majority peasant populations by military establishments linked to ruling land-owning oligarchs.

The key question to be addressed by the NIE concerned the ability of Mexico to resist Marxist destabilization spreading north from Nicaragua. If the Mexican domino could fall to the Marxists, the American frontier would be menaced directly. A senior CIA veteran analyst was called back from retirement to coordinate the estimate. After several months of work, the finished draft was presented for review to the National Foreign Intelligence Board (NFIB), a body comprised of the heads of all the components of the community. CIA Director Casey chaired the review meeting. The draft reflected a unanimous conclusion that Mexico’s stability and political conservatism would not be vulnerable to hypothetical Marxist destabilization coming from the south. Director Casey objected vehemently to this analysis and decided to have the estimate revised according to his own inclinations. The head of the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence (Gates?) caved in quickly, causing the NIE coordinator to quit in disgust and return to retirement. It was clear that the administration needed a rationale for a predetermined policy decision to increase politico-military pressure on Nicaragua against the will of a reluctant Democratic majority in Congress.

Intelligence in Support of Iraq Policy: How It Could Have Been Done Correctly
The Bush administration’s use of intelligence concerning the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as the main public justification for invading that country in 2003 is the latest example of the unhealthy manipulation of intelligence to support a predetermined policy

How the CIA succumbed to high-level pressure to declare “with certainty” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has been exhaustively described in the investigatory report of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This report was issued in July 2003 and has been extensively covered in the media.3

In a hypothetical flashback, let us look at how the intelligence community’s expertise about Iraq and the Middle East could have been used correctly and honestly to help inform President Bush’s decisions on that region in the aftermath of September 11.

DCI George Tenet’s first mistake in his approach to the president’s deep interest in the Iraq problem after September 11 was to call for a National Intelligence Estimate focused exclusively on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. More appropriate would have been an NIE analyzing the threat posed by Iraq to U.S. security, to U.S. national interests in the Middle East, and to other countries in the region. The NIE would also have contained an updated analysis of the balance of power in the region. Such an NIE would have required a profound look at more than WMD. There would have been an analysis of the state of Iraq’s economy and military capabilities after a decade of UN sanctions. There would also have been a study of Saddam’s relationships to international terrorism, as well as his political priorities at home. Such an NIE would have served as the basis for the preparation of options for the deliberation of the National Security Council and its associated organs. A broad new strategy for Iraq and the Middle East might have evolved. Such a strategy would probably have provided a far more solid rationale for regime change in Iraq than the issue of WMD. Once President Bush ordered forces deployed to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the second half of 2002 to be ready to invade Iraq if he so decided, Director Tenet should have commissioned a second NIE focused realistically on the challenges that the United States would face in Iraq in conjunction with an invasion and subsequent occupation. That this was not done amounted to dereliction of duty on the DCI’s part. Such a comprehensive study was done within the State Department, but the results were not taken into consideration by the Department of Defense (DOD). Coming from the intelligence community as a whole, such a study could not have been ignored within DOD as it prepared for a war of conquest and subsequent occupation.

Even for the limited NIE on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the responsible analysts at the base of the intelligence pyramid should have provided the only plausible analysis: “While Saddam has never abandoned his ambition to develop, manufacture, and deploy weapons of mass destruction, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Iraq has reconstituted the stocks of chemical and biological agents destroyed during the first round of UN inspections prior to 1997.” Certainly the secretary of state’s presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003 should have led to such a conclusion. Presumably based on the best intelligence available, the secretary’s presentation was excellent on theatrics, but the material prepared for him by the CIA was very thin on substance.

Policymaker: Be Nice to Your Intelligence Analyst, and You Will Be Well Served
Intelligence, both clandestine and open source, is an extremely valuable component of the national security policymaking process but not the only one. Policymakers should understand that its value depends on collection, reporting, and analysis that are based on reliable sources and dispassionate interpretation by analysts who know what they are talking about and are allowed freely to “tell it like it is.” Tampering with this process to achieve short-term policy objectives is an invitation to disaster. Policymakers should get closer to their intelligence analysts and tell them how much their dispassionate expertise is valued.

Originally published in American Foreign Policy Interests (National Committee on American Foreign Policy). Republished by permission of Dr. George D. Schwab, Director.
1. In the fall of 1980, President Jimmy Carter called the press together on a Sunday afternoon. He announced that Soviet forces were about to invade Poland to crush the emerging democracy movement. He said U.S.–Soviet relations would suffer. Within a few days, the Polish military carried out a coup and established a military regime. The intelligence community had issued an official “warning” to the administration, predicting a Soviet invasion. Soviet troops had been outfitted for combat, and Soviet tanks were on rail cars ready to go into Poland. The Soviet commanding general had taken up his battle station. The entire intelligence community, with the exception of State/INR, agreed on the warning. Later it turned out that Soviet preparations for an invasion were a bluff designed to bring about a Polish military coup. State/INR was right.

2. The statutory members of the National Security Council are the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the national security adviser.

3. A complete summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report is available in The New York Times of Sunday, July 11, 2003. It is ironic that the committee report effectively supplies the NIEs on a post facto basis that the CIA failed to provide.


Herman J. Cohen was deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research from 1980 to 1984; senior director for Africa on the National Security Council, 1987–1989; and assistant secretary of state for Africa, 1989 to 1993.


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