By Mark M. Lowenthal
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Well, that was the wrong fight to have.
Former ambassador Charles Freeman withdrew his name from consideration for the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council last week, citing criticism from the "Israel lobby" as one reason why he could not wind up overseeing reports outlining the judgments of the nation's intelligence agencies.
But all the subsequent hyperventilating over whether he had suffered "a barrage of libelous distortion" of his record is beside the point. Is the chairman of the National Intelligence Council even worth so much controversy anymore? Probably not.
The roots of the NIC go back to the early 1950s, when Director of Central Intelligence Walter Bedell Smith created an Office of National Estimates to produce long-term strategic analyses that would provide the president and his senior advisers with the consensus views of the government's various intelligence agencies. These documents, called National Intelligence Estimates, quickly ran into trouble. As early as the mid-'50s, a survey found that the main audience for these lengthy documents was junior staff members who used the estimates to help them brief their superiors. The survey also found that NIEs were considered too ponderous and that readers questioned how the "consensus" was achieved.
It hasn't gotten any better since then. In fact, not only are the estimates too unwieldy to be of any use, they generate distracting and dangerous controversy because they are so susceptible to political "cherry-picking."
Take one of the most infamous examples. The 2002 estimate claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction had little influence on anyone's decision about going to war. Only six senators actually read the NIE, but 77 voted to authorize the use of force. As analytically flawed as that estimate might have been, the one intelligence "sin" the council did not commit was "politicization" -- that is, writing what the policymaker wants to hear. Even the Senate intelligence committee's investigation of the Iraq NIE agreed; it wasn't politicized to support invasion.
Afterward, several other estimates on the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism were released in redacted form. This led to even more political cherry-picking by supporters and opponents of Bush administration policy. In 2007, Mike McConnell, then the Director of National Intelligence, decided that these redacted documents would no longer be made available. But he had to abandon this position in December 2007, when an NIE on Iran's nuclear program was produced. That estimate calculated that work on weaponization had ceased in 2003 and was widely seen as undercutting the Bush administration's growing pressure on Iran. Some even suggested that it had been written to "even the score" after the Iraq NIE, as though the council kept a balance sheet. The Bush administration ordered a redacted version to be published rather than have it leak out.
But these controversies actually exaggerate the importance of these documents in the policy process. The estimates haven't improved much since that survey of 54 years ago. They remain long, ponderous, sometimes tortuously written and largely lacking in influence. As a senior intelligence officer during the Bush administration, I led a team that conducted an extensive biannual review of intelligence performance. As part of this evaluation, we asked senior policymakers which intelligence products they found most useful. In each evaluation, NIEs came in last or next to last.
The NIC has other functions in addition to writing those estimates, of course. It produces Global Trends studies that look ahead 10 or 15 years. This may be an interesting intellectual process, but it is of little use to officials who are much more preoccupied with current issues, such as the global economic meltdown, than with the growth of eight new megacities by 2025.
Finally, oddly enough, the council has become the administrative support staff for the director of national intelligence as he prepares for high-level meetings, assembling briefing books for him. So now we have senior analysts and their staffs acting as clerks.
Chas Freeman may well have had difficulty adjusting to the role of intelligence officer. The former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia would have had responsibility for objective analysis that makes no policy recommendations. But the debate over Freeman's relative suitability was really a secondary issue. We first need to address how best to convey strategic intelligence to those who need it most. More than 50 years after Smith created the first NIE system and seven years since the Iraq estimate, we still can't get the basic process right.
Mark M. Lowenthal, president of the Intelligence & Security Academy, was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 2002 to 2005.