By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
After attracting repeated controversy, a premier product of the nation's intelligence community -- the National Intelligence Estimate -- is getting a makeover by senior intelligence officials to improve its credibility.
The estimates, produced periodically on hot-button issues such as Iraqi or Iranian weapons of mass destruction programs, are to be subjected to special internal reviews before they are finished, during which the reliability of each source of information will be examined anew, according to Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis.
Fingar, who supervises the NIE process, explained the revisions at a recent meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He said collectors of classified information used as the foundation for such estimates, which are meant to reflect the key judgments of 16 agencies, are being forced to reexamine all their sources, including electronic interceptions, satellite or aircraft imagery, and agent reports.
That process has been underway for some time for a new National Intelligence Estimate on trends in Iraq, which is slated for approval by agency heads in coming days, administration officials said.
"Each of the collection agencies has to submit a written report addressing each of the items that they produce that is used," Fingar said. "Do they still stand by it? Do they have any doubts about it? Have any questions been raised about the source?"
In the forthcoming NIE, some information supplied for the assessment was withdrawn after the special scrutiny, according to a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issues are classified.
New NIEs are also abandoning what Fingar described as the old "drive for consensus," which "has clearly a lowest-common-denominator element in it." The 2002 NIE on Iraq, for example, presented a majority CIA and Pentagon view that specialty aluminum tubes that Saddam Hussein's government was purchasing were intended to be used in centrifuges to process uranium, rather than for rocket launchers as analysts at the State Department and Energy Department had thought.
The process is not meant to decide "the credibility of an analytic judgment on the basis of how many agencies voted for it," Fingar said, "but what's the power of the argument?"
Another revision, he said, is meant to eliminate "gratuitous references to quotations of intelligence, of source reporting." He said instead of tough-minded analysis, analysts in the past would attempt to bolster a judgment or source reporting "with a quote, as if that somehow made the case."
Lurking in the background is the intelligence community's searing experience with a source code-named Curveball, the Iraqi engineer who supplied the Defense Intelligence Agency with bad information about Hussein's supposed mobile biological weapons labs. That information was contained in the 2002 NIE on Hussein's weapons and also in then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's February 2003 presentation at the United Nations.
In 2003, the CIA's European clandestine operatives questioned Curveball's reliability, even up to the night before Powell delivered his speech.
These changes will be incorporated in the classified NIE on Iraq, but the public probably will not have a chance to judge them. The heads of the 16 agencies, meeting as the National Intelligence Board, with Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell as chairman, will decide whether a declassified version of the Iraq key judgments will be released.
Criticized widely for the released key judgments late last year on Iran's nuclear program, McConnell said during a March 12 speech at Johns Hopkins University, "All future NIEs will not have unclassified key judgments if I'm persuasive enough among the decision makers."