Saturday, July 11, 2009

Privatizing National Intelligence Estimates

(This commentary appeared in the Winter, 2009 edition of the Journal for Intelligence and Counterintelligence udder the title; "Escaping the Wilderness of Mirrors")

There was a time when most National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) were classified, cloistered and rarely read. Recurring estimates were dusted off periodically and circulated in the Intelligence Community for coordination. “Happy” might be changed to “glad” and the cycle would begin anew. Indeed, the NIE was formatted not to be read, they all began with the punch lines, “Key Judgments”. Most readers stopped there.

All of this changed in the wake of the ‘weapons of mass destruction fiasco’. The subsequent NIE on Iraq was sifted above the fold like the ashes of Herculaneum. We have come full circle on analysis, from cooking the books to opening the books. CIA, especially, is clearly trying to address a credibility problem.

Unfortunately, this effort does not speak to the two faults at the heart of the analysis problem; competence and integrity.

As far as anyone knows, any given estimate might be written by one or sixteen nameless intelligence agency bureaucrats. Dissenting agencies appear in footnotes. In most cases, the point men represent agency politics not expertise. Few experts of national repute work in the bowels of Intelligence agencies. Most national estimates are not just group-think, worse still; they are bureaucratic group-think. They don’t represent good analysis so much as they represent consensus, however brief.

The sixteen agency circus is defended in the name of analytical diversity. These same agencies are then condemned as “stovepipes” when the diverse fail to converse; a classic ‘cake and eat it’ argument.

Integrity is the predictable victim when the key dynamic of the process is bureaucratic log-rolling. The closet battle between Air Force Intelligence and all others during the Cold War is a classic example. In that period, Air Force footnotes to strategic force NIEs would exceed the word count in the body of estimates. Those infamous bomber and missile “gaps” were products of this struggle. Maxwell Taylor’s, Uncertain Trumpet, documents some of the blow back from this era. Strategic force assessments are unique insomuch as the threat is tied directly to budgets. The math is simple, bigger threats equal bigger budgets.

Beyond weapons systems, cooking the books is an old and honored tradition in Intelligence Community analysis. The spectrum of fakery includes false ignorance, data manipulation and outright invention. Cases of premeditated ignorance would include the Israeli nuclear weapons program, the Tonkin Gulf incident and the KAL 007 shoot down, just to name a few. Blatant statistical manipulation was part of the heady brew during the McNamara years of the Vietnam War. Bomb damage, strategic hamlet, pacification and Vietnamization statistics, masquerading as measures of effectiveness, were all used to obscure an unpalatable ground truth. More recently, since 9/11 and in the run-up to the Iraq War, evidence seems to have been manufactured wholesale to support foregone conclusions.

After any real or imagined intelligence failure, the inevitable ad hoc commission comes to tell us how to fix the beast. Invariably, the answer is more money and more bureaucracy. Bigger is always better.

The 9/11 Commission and the more recent Iraq Study Group are illustrations. None of their bromides address the obvious solution to better national security analysis; ending the Executive Branch monopoly. There is no good reason for national security analysis to be the exclusive purview of any branch of government or worse still, a cabal of agencies with vested interests in outcomes. Privatization is the answer for analytical competence. Transparency is the answer for product integrity.

A small group of independent experts could convene as required to prepare assessments. The membership might vary as the subject requires. Experts might be compensated on a per diem basis. Politicians, lobbyists and obvious partisans need not apply. Intelligence agency functions could then be restricted to what they do best; collecting, processing, archiving and Tactical Intelligence.

Transparency might also eliminate special interest ad hoc analysis within the Intelligence Community. The Douglas Feith group which used to operate out of the Pentagon comes to mind.

Assessments from an independent group of experts might also benefit from single hand and named authorship, much like Supreme Court decisions. Dissenters would write minority opinions. Court analysis is attributable and transparent. National security analysis should not have lesser standards. Indeed, the current practice of giving the Executive Branch an exclusive on national security analysis is a little like giving the power of judicial review to Congress.

Calling our national assessments “intelligence” estimates is also misleading. The issue is national security not Intelligence. Intelligence is merely one of the ingredients of analysis. Most data, method and even thinking that go into analysis are unclassified. Surely sources and methods of intelligence collection need to be protected by classification. So be it. Nonetheless, classification should not be used as an excuse to obscure the whole process or product of national security deliberations.

If you were to visit the CIA web site, you might be led to believe that the NIE, and the process that supports it, is the gold standard in the Intelligence Community. Conversely, uninformed critics often sneer at Military Intelligence (aka Tactical Intelligence) as an oxymoron. In fact, our seamless net of tactical collection, identification, targeting and weapons applications is the Intelligence Community gold standard. This is not to say that the tactical folks don’t ever get it wrong. But when they do, their systems are self medicating. National estimates, on the other hand, have been a basket case for decades.

National security analysis needs to be separated from the Executive Branch and the Intelligence Community. Privatize immediately!


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