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December 10, 2007


The Next NIE

There is Value in Recognizing Ignorance

By Michael Tanji | December 10, 2007

Ample ink has been spilled by both ends of the political spectrum on what the latest NIE on Iran’s nuclear capabilities means. Partisans in both camps have reason to love and hate the thing, or more precisely what they think is in the thing, given that we are dealing with just four pages of unclassified and high-level conclusions from 150 pages of narrative and supporting material. The folly of judging important books by their covers notwithstanding, one question remains to be asked: with all that may be wrong with an NIE, what should be done to make them more right?

By “right” I do not mean what political slant they should take (ideally, none). To a certain extent I do not even mean how correct they should be. By “right” I mean how accurately they explain what is known and more importantly what is unknown.

Allow me to explain.

As a former intelligence analyst I recall a time when an enlightened boss with sufficient bureaucratic muscle would allow analysts to include a section in their assessments labeled “intelligence gaps.” “Key judgments” are the intelligence community’s version of the outside world’s “executive summary.” I’m not aware of a parallel to “intelligence gaps,” since like most authors trying to convey expertise, intelligence officers do not like to suggest that there is something they don’t know.

The importance of the gaps section in an intelligence assessment cannot be understated. It was not simply a laundry list of factors that you were ignorant about; it served as a management tool that would help craft future collection requirements. Satellites not taking pictures of the right sites? Not recruiting agents in the right locations or asking them the right questions? By pointing out where collection was coming up short and how you were under-serving policymakers, you justified your request for a change in tactics and demonstrated your willingness to respond to consumer needs.

This wasn’t a one-way street. Collectors get more credit when the gather information of high value. One report with a breakthrough piece of information is worth infinitely more than 20 reports telling you some variation on what you already knew. By providing what analyst’s needed, collectors ended up helping themselves. Likewise, if the list of unknowns grew smaller, consumers could better determine if intelligence was serving their needs and bolster their confidence in our assessments.

Of course like any exercise conducted in a bureaucracy, this collector-analyst feedback process was spotty at best. You had to make a serious effort to carve out the time the fill out evaluations and in a job that is often nothing but juggling one “must do now” task after another, collector feedback was often viewed as a housekeeping task that could be put off, usually indefinitely. As much as anything, this internal intelligence failure contributes to the community’s sorry record of gathering meaningful intelligence on a wide variety of targets, particularly hard targets like Iran.

There are many ways to tackle an intelligence problem analytically, but what makes or breaks an intelligence assessment is the information available to be analyzed. One unimpeachable source on one discrete topic can make for a very confident assessment indeed, but few intelligence problems are so narrow and simple. Read the key judgments of this latest NIE backwards to see what I mean. Viewed in this fashion it says, “We are not terribly confident in these discrete elements, but when we view them as a whole our confidence is boosted.” That’s akin to an airline mechanic signing off on the airworthiness of a jetliner knowing that almost everything he just inspected is dodgy. Who wants to board the plane first?

As mentioned previously, the full NIE is 150 pages long, so enough collection may not be a problem. However, the fact that the authors make such an effort to couch and caveat what they think they know indicates that they are making up for a great deal of ignorance. Should we be satisfied with such ambiguous and circumspect descriptions of the information our nation’s leaders will be using to make the critical decisions of our time?

Your author has commented elsewhere on what he feels is really at work with this NIE. While it may very well be a partisan political agenda made manifest, experience suggests that the intelligence community is doing its utmost to avoid another public failure on par with Iraq’s WMD programs (or India’s nuclear weapons test, or the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc.). This includes but is not limited to using every linguistic trick in the book to ensure that anything written about any intelligence problem could be looked at in hindsight as “right” if interpreted in a particular way.

The community owes the leaders of our country, regardless of their political affiliation, better.

People laughed at former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he spoke of the problem of “unknown unknowns.” Odd as his verbiage was, he was driving home the point that you cannot make sound decisions about national security if you are in any way ignorant of your adversary’s intentions and activities. Does anyone really think that one of our toughest intelligence targets suddenly became transparent or is it more likely that there is more going on here than meets the eye?

Anyone in the current administration – and any aspiring presidential candidate – that is interested in leaving a noteworthy imprint on the intelligence community should make mandatory the inclusion of intelligence gaps in every NIE and major intelligence product. Our adversaries do not need to know what we don’t know, but the community would be doing itself and its customers a great service by remembering the significance of ignorance.

December 1, 2007


Reassessing China

It is Time for a Fresh Look at the Middle Kingdom

By Michael Tanji | December 1, 2007

Several reports have emerged over the last few years that discuss a massive on-going Chinese military build-up. In parallel, numerous reports of Chinese espionage efforts against the US and our interests have also been released. More recently it was revealed that US intelligence assessments on Chinese issues have consistently fallen short, to the detriment of US readiness against the potential threats China may pose. Is a confrontation with China imminent or are there other factors we need to consider when assessing this situation?

There is no disputing the military growth China has undertaken. China's military has grown in both capacity and quality, as well as in reach - though still not as forward capable as that of the US. Is the massing of tens of thousands of troops and the pointing of hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles at a "renegade province" – as China views Taiwan - simply for show? While the military threat to Taiwan may be unambiguous, China remains in no position to directly threaten the US in such a manner - aside from the potential escalation of a conflict to a nuclear exchange. The primary threat remains an indirect one. To challenge the US by attacking an ally, and thusly force the US to either defend Taiwan or not. The Chinese understand fully that the decision to defend Taiwan would not be a simple one for the US.

Key factors to consider when assessing the growth and evolution of Chinese military capabilities are: their increasing overseas presence and the need to defend their national interests. It is worth noting that – actual shooting wars aside – when the US sends its military overseas to do things like train the military forces of nations struggling to fight terrorism or insugencies, and to perform civil affairs missions, we do so not in a quest for empire, but simply to preserve our national interests.

The espionage issue is more clearly defined in our eyes. Inasmuch as every capable nation keeps an eye on both friend and foe, there is a difference between intelligence operations designed to track known and emerging threats and a full-court-press designed to undermine the security of another nation. Could one argue that, in the pursuit of its own national interests, Chinese espionage against the US is warranted? To an extent the answer is "yes" but by that same token we cannot view their actions as friendly. The focus of much of their espionage work is commercial "dual-use" technology: discoveries that have both civilian and military applications. We protect the latter applications as a matter of course, but commercial enterprises would be happy to sell the more benign versions to almost anyone. Espionage may be cheaper than a licensing fee, but then one should forfeit their right to complain that we view their actions as hostile.

The issue of our own intelligence services consistently underestimating assessments on China is perhaps the most troubling of all of these developments. For all the recent flailing over the alleged politicization of intelligence related to Iraq, there is perhaps no clearer indication that a political point of view has its grip on key members of the intelligence community. That military and intelligence activities carried out by the Chinese are apparently always viewed in the most innocent light suggests that those who accuse the national security establishment of being soft on China are not far off the mark. These analysts could very well be drawing what they view as accurate conclusions based on the data at hand and their own expertise, but when one's conclusions are so consistent, anyone viewing the situation objectively has to wonder why the work related to a target as hard as China is almost formulaic in nature. If your author has learned anything in two decades in the intelligence business it is that no problem is so straight forward.

The importance of accurate intelligence and impartial analysis on a potential adversary cannot be understated. Decisions about the size and composition of our own forces are made based on such information; it is also relied upon when making decisions about research and development of national security technologies, as well as for lobbying Congress to support new weapons systems. With flawed intelligence leading us down the primrose path about what China is doing, we could find ourselves woefully ill-prepared to deal with a very serious threat. Caught short in the face of a threat to our allies or national interests, we are left with two highly undesirable courses of action: effectively doing nothing for lack of an adequate response capability, or taking actions that could lead to an irresponsible escalation of the situation - going far beyond a proportional defense of our interests.

We do not know if an armed conflict with China is a foregone conclusion, but we do know that as China continues to strive for superpower status, the probability that tensions between our nations will rise at various times over various points is inevitable. Not planning for clashes of varying scale and nature with China would be extremely foolish and as long as the conventional wisdom holds that we have nothing to fear at all, we should prepare to lose those disputes. The time for a more independent, even-handed and clear-headed look at what we need to be doing to avoid unnecessary conflicts with China, and what we need to do to win the inevitable ones, has long since passed. A Center for Threat Awareness report will begin filling that gap soon.

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