In a posting earlier today I alluded to the fact that the National Intelligence Estimate process seems to have fallen into a state of complete disrepair – or, at least, disuse. I can speak from personal experience with NIEs and what happens when their judgments are not welcome and/or not even asked for.
When we intelligence analysts prepared a National Intelligence Estimate in fall 1967 to warn President Johnson there were twice as many armed Viet Cong in South Vietnam as U.S. Gen. William Westmoreland claimed, we never got our message through to LBJ. CIA Director Richard Helms explained to us that he "did not want to get into a pissing contest with the US Army at war".
On the fateful US withdrawal from Afghanistan in recent weeks, was the intelligence analysis limited to folks working for CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie? This would not surprise me in the least.
National Intelligence Estimates used to be the main vehicle by which the Director of Central Intelligence (at present the Director of National Intelligence – i. e., head of the intelligence community) spoke corporately and authoritatively to the President and his advisers on key issues. I know the process intimately, having contributed to many such studies relating to the USSR, and having chaired two NIEs as Acting National Intelligence Officer for Western Europe during the Seventies. As I noted 12 and a half years ago in a piece on the March of Folly into Afghanistan, presidents were free to – and often did – reject judgments in an NIE, often under pressure from we-see-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel generals like Westmoreland and pundits like Joe Alsop.
The point is that the presidents regularly ordered an NIE before making key policy decisions. Why else have an "intelligence community"! If, as seems to be the case, analysts at CIA, for example, were elbowed out – were not asked for their views – on how precipitately the Afghan government/Army house of cards would fall if denied close air support, the generals and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are certainly due the lion’s share of the blame. I would fire them; but I am not Harry Truman, and neither is Joe Biden.
Below are some comments on significant NIEs, including junctures at which they were avoided like the plague:
- Fall 1967 – How Many Armed Viet Cong in South Vietnam? – This excellent NIE was deep-sixed by CIA Director Helms, who chose to defer to Gen. Westmoreland’s deliberate underestimate proven wrong during the Tet offensive three months later. Westmoreland would not allow one VC more than 299,000 into his Order of Battle holdings. In the wake of the attacks at Tet, LBJ decided not to run for another term.
- October 2002 – "Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction": "We judge that Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons … it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."
Lesson: Dishonest NIEs can "justify" unnecessary war.
Dubbed "The Whore of Babylon", this NIE is the worst on record; not only was it wrong, but its preparers knew it to be wrong as they wrote it. In June 2008, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller reported out the bipartisan conclusions of a 4-year committee study, commenting: "In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even nonexistent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed."
Director George Tenet had tried to avoid having to prepare an NIE, and kept dodging until Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham told Tenet in mid-September to inform the White House that absent an NIE, Graham would not permit a vote on war on Iraq. Cheney/Bush relented; told Tenet proceed, but with Cheney molding the key judgments. Tenet saluted, and the "Whore of Babylon" was prepared in a little over two weeks. It also formed the basis for Colin Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003 address to the UN Security Council.
Fall 2006 – "Should We ’Surge’ in Iraq?" No NIE (Petraeus and Gates knew best)
Nov. 2007 – NIE: "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities"; "We judge with high confidence that in the fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program". In Decision Points, George W. Bush complains bitterly that this NIE judgment "tied my hands on the military side", adding that, "After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?"
Lesson: Honest NIEs can help prevent unnecessary war.
Early 2009 – "Should We ’Surge’ in Afghanistan?" No NIE (Petraeus and Gates knew best). Then Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired Lieutenant General who had served three years in Afghanistan over the course of two separate tours of duty. (During 2002-2003 he was responsible for rebuilding Afghan security forces. He then served 18 months – 2005-2007 – as commander of all US forces stationed in the country) appealed for a new NIE in all but name. Elbowed out.
In late-2008, Gen. David McKiernan, the top US commander in Afghanistan publicly contradicted his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, when Gates, protesting the widespread pessimism on Afghanistan, started talking up the prospect of a "surge" of troops in Afghanistan.
McKiernan insisted publicly that no Iraqi-style "surge" of forces would end the conflict in Afghanistan. "The word I don’t use for Afghanistan is ‘surge,’" McKiernan stated, adding that what is required is a "sustained commitment" that could last many years and would ultimately require a political, not military, solution. Elbowed out.
Early 2021 – "How Best to Exit Afghanistan?" No NIE (Petraeus’s/Gates’s successors knew best.) Were the CIA and other intelligence agencies elbowed out again? Surely, someone will ask?
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).