What It Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Read It
MUCH OF THE WORK of the Intelligence Community (IC) involves estimative analysis because many of the questions it is asked to address—and all of the important questions—have unknown or indeterminate answers. The bestknown, most discussed, and most misunderstood form of estimative analysis is the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). NIEs have been produced for more than sixty years, and many of the older ones have been declassified and published.1 A few—in the grand scheme of things, very few—have become infamous for bad judgments and/or bad tradecraft, but most of them have been pretty good.2 “Pretty good” should not be interpreted as disparaging their utility. Most were unexciting and unsurprising, and few scored theoretical breakthroughs. What they did do, most of the time, was to pull together the available evidence on issues important to decision makers, seek additional information to close “intelligence gaps,” and interpret that evidence with the goal of characterizing the current situation as accurately as possible. They also ascertained where developments appeared to be headed and what would determine their speed and trajectory, and they explicated alternative possibilities, potential harbingers of change, and possible opportunities for U.S. policy makers to shape the course of events. Most of the time, they largely confirmed or validated what those working the issues already knew, or thought that they knew, about the subject.
That they did not present new discoveries or theoretical breakthroughs did not make them irrelevant or useless; to the contrary, a validating second opinion on matters that had risen to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda