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Irrefutable Estimates

Henry Kissinger is perhaps the wrong messenger for what is in fact a rather salient and important message. I touched upon it yesterday, and it deserves repeating--Once intelligence estimates become an arm of public political discourse, their very purpose changes dramatically. Kissinger is correct to question this scenario, wherein often unelected policy makers and intelligence gatherers somehow become a check upon the executive branch of government.

The problem with this autonomy is that it's not consistent with what was structured to be a civilian-led process, ultimately accountable to voting citizens. Americans voted for President Bush...twice. They did not vote for the bureaucrats who occupy the halls of State, or CIA, or wherever. It also contorts the original purpose of the NIE, which was initially intended to show broad trends and possibilities in across-the-board intelligence gathering, not to be an irrefutable source for American policy decisions. These estimates, as history has shown, have at times been terribly wrong, and should be analyzed rather than codified. They should guide decisions rather than determining them outright.

James Joyner views this, possibly, as a necessary evil. Acting upon what we almost certainly know to be true is better than acting on the contrary. My concern then becomes the direction this takes things, if we're to go down the constant path of repeatedly checking the executive. If the NIE becomes an autonomous authority on American intelligence, then it risks becoming an interest group bearing less authority. If the audience becomes the American public--as opposed to their elected Commander in Chief--then the tone changes and inevitably becomes politicized.

Kissinger, sad to say, nails it:


The intelligence community has a major role in helping to design such a vision. But it must recognize that the more it ventures into policy conjecture, the less authoritative its judgments become. There was some merit in the way President Richard Nixon conducted National Security Council discussions at the beginning of his first term. He invited the CIA director to brief on the capabilities and intentions of the countries under discussion but required him to leave the room during policy deliberations. Because so many decisions require an intelligence input, this procedure proved unworkable.

I have often defended the dedicated members of the intelligence community. This is why I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch. When intelligence personnel expect their work to become the subject of public debate, they are tempted into the roles of surrogate policymakers and advocates. Thus the deputy director for intelligence estimates explained the release of the NIE as follows: Publication was chosen because the estimate conflicted with public statements by top U.S. officials about Iran, and "we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available." That may explain releasing the facts but not the sources and methods that have been flooding the media. The paradoxical result of the trend toward public advocacy is to draw intelligence personnel more deeply than ever into the public maelstrom.

The executive branch and the intelligence community have gone through a rough period. The White House has been accused of politicizing intelligence; the intelligence community has been charged with promoting institutional policy biases. The Key Judgments document accelerates that controversy, dismaying friends and confusing adversaries.

Intelligence personnel need to return to their traditional anonymity. Policymakers and Congress should once again assume responsibility for their judgments without involving intelligence in their public justifications. To define the proper balance between the user and producer of intelligence is a task that cannot be accomplished at the end of an administration. It is, however, one of the most urgent challenges a newly elected president will face.


Allow the American public to judge the decisions made by their elected officials. This, consequently, grants more weight to their own democratic choices. If you want to see what an overly-bureaucratic, bloated and layered example of check-upon-check governance looks like, simply observe the subject state of the now infamous NIE. Iran--arguably a republic in name only--has multiple agencies and institutions intended to check the other, all resulting in a state of paralysis that relies on the appellate judgment of the Supreme Leader.

This is the behavior of a government that distrusts the judgment of its own people. Keep the agencies of the executive branch defined, and allow the American people to be the "check" on their decisions.


Others Blogging It:

Gabriel Schoenfeld
No Quarter
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