Search Penny Hill Press

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Intelligence Estimates: How Useful to Congress?

Richard A. Best Jr.
Specialist in National Defense

National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) are often of considerable interest to many Members of Congress. They represent the most formal assessment of a given national security issue by the U.S. intelligence community. The intelligence process, however, is not an exact science and, on occasion, NIEs have proved unreliable because they were based on insufficient evidence or contained faulty analysis. This was demonstrated in the NIE produced in 2002 on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, parts of which were significantly inaccurate.

At best NIEs provide an in-depth understanding of a complex international situation where U.S. policymakers may perceive a need to make difficult decisions. Although NIEs can provide insights into the likely effects of certain policy approaches, they are not usually prepared to take into account the details of planned U.S. diplomatic, economic, military, or legislative initiatives.

Traditionally, Congress has not been a principal consumer of NIEs. Although Congress has on occasion requested NIEs and expressed interest in their conclusions, the experience with the NIE on Iraqi WMD and other assessments has led some Members to question their usefulness. The FY2007 Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 109-364, Section 1213) specifically requested a comprehensive NIE on Iran. The NIE was to be prepared in classified form and an unclassified summary of key judgments forwarded, “consistent with the protection of intelligence sources and methods.” In early December 2007 the DNI released unclassified key judgments of a NIE, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. The NIE judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Even though the NIE did recognize “with moderateto- high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” the public release of the key judgments at a time of ongoing diplomatic initiatives was widely considered problematical.

There seems to be an emerging consensus that publicly releasing NIEs, or even unclassified summaries, has limitations. Some of the nuances of classified intelligence judgments are lost and there are concerns that public release of an unclassified summary of a complicated situation does not effectively serve the legislative process. In passing the FY2010 Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 111-84), Congress chose not to require an NIE on the nuclear ambitions of certain states and non-state actors, but rather to request biennial reports (with unclassified summaries) from the DNI.

Date of Report: January 6, 2011
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: RL33733
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail
Penny Hill Press  or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.