Thomas Fingar on the Politics of NIE/NIAs

Arms Control Wonk linked to this really fascinating Thomas Fingar speech at Stanford. Fingar, you’ll recall, was one of the people at State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research who judged that Iraq wasn’t getting nukes. He went on to serve as Deputy Director of National Intelligence where, in 2007, he oversaw the Iran NIE that judged Iran had stopped its active nuclear weapons program in 2003.

It’s for Fingar’s comments about the latter that ACW links to his speech–to highlight Fingar’s revelation that the White House ordered declassification of that 2007 NIE.

This example is drawn from the highly contentious 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. It became contentious, in part, because the White House instructed the Intelligence Community to release an unclassified version of the report’s key judgments but declined to take responsibility for ordering its release.

Remember, at the time Dick Cheney and Israel were both trying to force a military response to Iran’s nuclear program … but now we learn the White House ordered the NIE be released?

Was Bush (presumably with Condi’s help) playing Cheney’s games against him, releasing classified information without telling Cheney he ordered its release? As ACW notes, Fingar explains the logic behind the release–which was designed to show that there was time, but some urgency, to resolving the Iran situation diplomatically.

In other words, the message it was intended to send to policymakers was, “You do not have a lot of time but you appear to have a diplomatic or non-military option.” Prior to the publication of this Estimate, the judgment of the Intelligence Community—and of many pundits and policymakers—was that there was no chance of deterring Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon and that the only use of force—military options—could prevent Tehran from acquiring the bomb. The estimate also judged, and stated clearly, that Iran at a minimum had retained the option to pursue a weapon and that whether to do so would be a political decision that could be made at any time.

The entire speech is worth reading. Fingar provides an explanation for the crappy 2002 Iraq NIE.

In my experience, most policymakers ask themselves, and often ask their intelligence support team, whether the reported or projected development requires immediate action on their part or can be deferred while they work on more pressing issues or more attractive parts of their policy agendas. That is a natural and rational approach. To compensate for this, intelligence has a built-in, and on some subjects, like terrorism, a recently reinforced propensity to underscore, overstate, or “hype” the findings in order to get people to pay attention, and to fireproof the IC against charges that it failed to provide adequate warning. I note in passing that this propensity was one of the reasons for the errors in the infamous 2002 Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

While the explanation is not a surprise, there are several implications of it–not least that the former Number 2 in DNI is suggesting that estimates about terrorism are overstated, with the possible result that terrorism has remained a larger policy focus than other pressing issues. (Elsewhere, in his discussion about the Global Trends 2025 report, Fingar does note that the results of terrorism will be increasingly dangerous, largely due to bioterrorism.)

Which brings us to Fingar’s description of the genesis for the climate change NIA.

I should probably take it as a badge of achievement that Members of Congress began to press for an NIE on global climate change in late 2006 and early 2007. The reason I say this is that I made improvement in the quality of analysis, notably NIEs, and the restoration of confidence in the quality of IC analytic work my highest priorities when I became Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council in mid 2005. By 2007, we had regained the confidence of a growing number of Members who began to request NIEs in order to have reliable and objective assessments of important issues. Or so they said. Many of these requests came from Democrats who may have had an additional motivation, i.e., to use NIEs as a stick with which to pummel the administration. That is a tale for another time; here I want to focus on climate change. The short setup for the story I’m about to tell is that whether climate change is occurring, the extent to which it is caused by human activity, whether the US was incurring too high a price for being out of step with its allies on the importance of combating global warming, and a host of other politically-charged issues provided the backdrop for the initial requests that the NIC produce an NIE on climate change. Another factor was the release and reception of former Vice President Al Gore’s book and documentary on global warming entitled An Inconvenient Truth.

In order to tell the story, I will compress a number of conversations with several Members and staff into a single and greatly simplified set of invented exchanges that
accurately reflect the dialog.

Member: We need an estimate on climate change.

Me: We don’t do climate change, talk to NOAA or the National Academy of Sciences.

Member: But we trust you and know we will get an objective assessment.

Me: Thank you, but the NIC doesn’t know anything about climate science.

Member: But we trust you, and the NIC does analyze geopolitical developments, right?

Me: Yes, but we still don’t have any expertise on climate change.

Member: OK, then do an NIE on the geopolitics of global climate change.

She had me. Congress eventually ordered us to produce an Estimate on the geopolitical implications of global climate change.

(While Fingar insists this was entirely fictional, the gender of his imagined interlocutory suggests Nancy Pelosi or DiFi as possibilities for the member asking for the estimate.) Again, not a surprise, but out of this request came–in Fingar’s estimation–a document that provided some early resource allocation suggestions and red flags for dealing with climate change.

Most of the rest of the document talks about Fingar’s attempts to improve the process of collaborative documents like the NIEs and NIAs, which gives a glimpse of how our intelligence community attempts to improve its analytical process. Well worth reading the whole thing.

19 replies
  1. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    EW wrote:

    While the explanation is not a surprise, there are several implications of it–not least that the former Number 2 in DNI is suggesting that estimates about terrorism are overstated, with the possible result that terrorism has remained a larger policy focus than other pressing issues.

    And EW quoted:

    Member: We need an estimate on climate change.

    Me: We don’t do climate change, talk to NOAA or the National Academy of Sciences.

    Member: But we trust you and know we will get an objective assessment.

    Me: Thank you, but the NIC doesn’t know anything about climate science.

    An overemphasis on terrorism, but ‘we don’t do climate change’.
    Good thing there are no linkages between resource scarcity, rapid urbanization, deforestation, resource pressures, exploding (poor) populations, and terrorism.

    Smashing head on keyboard…

    • person1597 says:

      Protect your keyboard and your head… together yes, with purpose, yes!

      Kilhjwilhkujf_alskgfhbiol_trhwerjwljh is something Hannity would say.

  2. bmaz says:

    Well, rest assured that Eric Holder is now reviewing the Gitmo cases

    U.S. officials are reviewing which Guantanamo Bay detainees could face trial in American courts and the first indications could come next week, the U.S. attorney general said Sunday.

    Eric Holder told reporters that some decisions could be announced as early as Nov. 16, but he declined to give details or say whether it could include some of the detainees accused in the September 11 attacks.

    Good to see they are moving so quickly…..

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    George Bush, even at the top of his game, was stretching his talents when he said yes or no to recommendations from his staff. It’s hard to imagine him initiating such a move, but easy to imagine Bush, later in his administration, following the recommendations of a small staff group to do a quiet end around on Cheney, to limit the damage caused by his usurpation of the president’s policy-making responsibility.

    That’s an odd role reversal, the president attempting surreptitiously to recover some of his own power, which he had allowed his subordinate to take from him under the guise of delegating it to him. I wonder who those bureaucratic protectors of the president were.

    • LabDancer says:

      I really doubt that much of this is attributable to Bush acting “surreptitiously to recover some of his own power”. AOT I doubt the existence of any reliable precedent for him being so proactive. Rather, IMO, the key had to be in getting Bush to accept moving to ditch Rumsfeld–a move which I AM prepared to accept can at least be attributable to moves and support by some within the White House, most critically Rice, Hadley and Rove, to allow Dad’s old crew in the door to talk some sense into him– headed by the likes of Scowcroft et al working the “Surge” angle. Once one half of the Cheney-Rumsfeld double-team was sat down, all that additional autonomy Bush tolerated in his Secretary of Defense worked to isolate Cheney to using his own brand of Boltonian diplomacy.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        That Bush would not, could not have acted to protect himself or his office by opposing Cheney was my point. His record documents that he understands executive authority primarily through a single attribute: the power to delegate the comprehension and doing of one’s own job to subordinates actually capable of understanding and doing it.

        Moreover, except when acting out of temporary pique – when he fantasized that he was keeping Cheney in his place via derogatory locker room put downs – and then at the end of his administration when he no longer cared at all, Bush demonstrated little ability and less willingness to say no to his nominal subordinate. The exception is where agreeing with Cheney about pardoning Scooter Libby might have exposed Bush himself to liability.

        I agree that Bush would not have initiated a policy to order leaks that contradicted the Cheney playbook. He might have acquiesced in a proposal brought to him by others, one explained primarily by motivations other than to recover the power he had negligently delegated to Cheney. That doing so was the better policy, in Bush’s mind, probably never entered the equation.

        Limiting Rumsfeld’s power could have been a motivation. There seems to have been no love lost between them, and comparable levels of talent. But I don’t think Bush would have accomplished that by knowingly letting it be done by his father’s network. If anything was a constant for Shrub more than acquiescing to Cheney’s direction, it was not acquiescing to his father’s.

        • LabDancer says:

          This seems closer to something I’d agree with; but I would not agree that Bush would perceive himself as ‘acquiescing’ to ‘Dad’s’ crew; he grew up with a lot of that crew, and would see himself dipping into the same reserve from which he lifted Cheney. Also, there’ve been lots of reports of Dad’s testy view of Rumsfeld, and surely we can agree it’s reasonable to expect that view to have pervaded Bushco sufficiently to render him a lot more ‘undermine-able’ than Cheney.

    • person1597 says:

      I wonder who those bureaucratic protectors of the president were.

      What a great question. LabDancer’s answer…

      Once one half of the Cheney-Rumsfeld double-team was sat down, all that additional autonomy Bush tolerated in his Secretary of Defense worked to isolate Cheney to using his own brand of Boltonian diplomacy.

      Is as close as we may get without further revelations.

      There may be an intrigue regarding the GS angle if, somehow, it was known that the plan to manipulate oil futures could go against Cheney. Bolten was a GS guy so he may have throttled things in a way that isolated the Cheneybots.

      GS and Cheney had parallel objectives to begin with, though Cheney’s long position in oil may not have ultimately squared with the trader’s view — buy low, sell high. When the bubble burst, the selling would have been like anti-matter to Cheney-doms material wealth. This aggravation may have been foreseen since Yosh was pretty astute about the nature of the business cycle.

      As boom led to bust, the oil barons could no longer prevail against the ferocious economic implosion. Conversely, Goldman was hedged six ways to Sunday. I suspect that is an extreme irritant to the Oilogopilists who’s dollar denominated soul was left to dangle in the winds of change.

      Bolten may have been the GS proxy in the WH at the time, but his lineage may have warned him against the machinations of Cheney.

      He explained: “We live in a world of finite resources and somebody has to say no.”

  4. Loo Hoo. says:

    Why do you say “she” might be DiFi rather than Boxer, EW? Because she would be closer to Fingar as a member of the intelligence committee?

  5. parsnip says:

    Bob Graham, in Intelligence Matters gives a different explanation for the ‘crappy 2002 Iraq NIE’: He wrote that there had been no Iraq NIE produced in 2002, and as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, requested the CIA to prepare one in September 2002. The one that was received shortly thereafter was very crudely produced, but included reservations about the ‘intelligence.’ Graham felt this was important and requested a declassified version for the public. This version arrived two days later and was very slick. A footnote says that this version had actually been produced in February 2002! (This is from memory. I read the book in 2005)

    I think ‘Team B’ produced the slick version.

  6. lawordisorder says:

    Thanxs marcy you serve your country well today…as well as a shitload of other good things.

    Small soldiers are trying too keep up with your speed but needs a lot more coffee

    one or two points

    1. The interesting thing here is not the workerbee cya writting thats SOP
    2. Nor is it interresting that we care about things like gas and abortion and a shit load of other things, the simpel answer in a fast moving world anything that the “politicos” potentialy can drop the ball on that could evolve in to a shooting game, just to mention a few of the resent years subjekts over here is cartoones, gaslines, police abuse, Banking just to name a few. thge reasson being that we do wanna know the signs so that we can warn the “politicos”

    and if we se smart moves, we adobt them and use them in other places i think a very famous german tactician wrote something along the lines of war being politics just with other means.

    This is a game of perception..if the “politicos” whan’t it to be a problem on our desk, then it is.

    Before you go headbanging the keyboard, i personaly dropped the ball on the cartoon thing writting it of as national politics…boy was i wrong on that one……

    The thing is that we see (to put it in the words of your potus) a united states or any othe country for that matte as a whole. It Dosent matter what uniform or country we serve…..thats also what among other things bind us together in a sort of brotherhood of arms and certain codes of conducts…thats why when the “politicos” start to blend in with us…the system gets all fubar

    3. On climate change the simple answer is for one theres gonna be a shit load of new playingfields as with all new games and players everybody got the gitters and that i my line of work smell’s like small workerbees end up dead.

    I take that you agree with me that there’s stil a window of opertunity diplomatic wise on the Iran thing, but closing fast

    Just my five cents worth

  7. perris says:

    here’s what I do not understand about the nie they claim gave warning about Iraq;

    clark and members of the cia told us Iraq was not a threat, clark was dumbfounded anyone wanted to attack Iraq and said so

    the nie was gamed if it indicated we needed to attack Iraq and it was gamed by those who wanted to attack Iraq

  8. 1boringoldman says:

    What a goldmine! this post and the comments, Fingar’s speech itself, the idea of using Intelligence to look for Opportunity, and the phrase “Boltonian Diplomacy” [AKA Carpet bombing].

    But I find the discussion of Bush fascinating. The premise is that Bush leaked the NIE as a way to stop Cheney from lobbying to bomb Iran into the stone age. Some are intrigued. Some think he wasn’t up to it [smart enough or ‘man’ enough]. But it sounds like business as usual to me. Cheney was as uncontrolled then as he is now. Bully Boy was running out of time. Condi, Hadley, Rove – who knows which – saying it was the only way to stop Cheney sounds like the style any or all of them. George says “Why not? We’ve leaked the NIE before. Hee, Hee, Hee. Serves him right. Hee, hee, hee.” Then off to the ranch to clear some brush and cycle. Check and mate on Bully Boy. “And I ain’t pardoning Libby either. Hee, Hee, Hee.”

    Revenge of the Nerds…

    • lawordisorder says:

      As for the who’s i personally whould go look for people, known or unknown (loyal) to powel he still carries a big load of mojo arrond the world, not only for his personal values but the fact that they can identify themselves with “serving the office”… and that just made a mindboggling long list BTW im on that list too…. wars and uniforms tend to make “band of brothers” and nobody around the world wanted to stand up and do another “Powel at the UN thing”

      As for the how (this one comes strait from my personal playbook of dirty tricks) You identify the target (in this case the decision-maker), then you wait for a bad day at the office, or you create one, then you sneak it in under a ton other info that this person has to sign off on QED you got what the hell you wanted…not saying that’s how it was actually done only saying that’s what i would do….

      And i agree just another day at the office, never underestimate the power of dignety or the fact that the biggest “peacemovement” is a “pro” in uniform or a has been in uniform for that matter.

      So the official excuse was probably we whant the iranian to look and act accordingly (aka play ball in negotiations) second is home politicos aka House and senate and the design also served to keep the b. team in line…

      Gotta luv this design don’t you

  9. orionATL says:

    what new?

    weren’t we told,

    years after the fact, of course,

    that cia estimates of soviet military and, particularly, nuclear capacity

    routinely conveyed to white house bosses,

    and routinely leaked to a slavering opinion press (e.g., the alsop brothers),

    were egregiously in error in the “oh my god” direction, aka, the “the russians are coming” direction.

    but what the f**k;

    somebody’s got to write/say something;

    the presses can’t just stop printing,

    teevee “news” can’t declare a “no significant news today” holiday,

    now can they?

    the media millwheel turns and grinds,

    turns and grinds.

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