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A Frighteningly Irrefutable NIE

How should we assess the new National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland”?

This document was produced by the National Intelligence Council, now under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the new body that sits astride the CIA and the fifteen other agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA, both as an intelligence collector and as analytic machine, played a central role in its preparation.

Reaction to the document so far has largely revolved around whether it helps or hurts the tottering Bush administration. But while such speculation is inevitable—and also necessary given the possibility that the CIA might be continuing to wage guerrilla warfare against the White House—it is in some respects beside the point.

The key thing to bear in mind in thinking about this NIE is that it was produced by an organization that is still bleeding from a series of self-inflicted wounds. Having missed the 9/11 attacks, and then botched its assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the second Gulf War, the CIA is locked in perpetual defensive motion.

A document of this nature, and of such importance, therefore has to be written defensively; in other words, given all the missteps taken and falsehoods purveyed by the intelligence community in the past, everything this NIE says now about the terrorist menace has to be irrefutable.

That’s a tall order, especially since terrorists remain a hard target; they cannot be counted by satellites like Soviet ICBM’s. To meet the challenge, the NIE, to judge by the declassified summary, has gone in a perfectly comprehensible direction; while warning against looming dangers, it is telling us absolutely nothing we did not already know.

Here are some of its “key judgments”:

We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years. The main threat comes from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, especially al Qaeda, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading a leading newspaper, like the New York Times?

We assess that greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al Qaeda to attack the U.S. Homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the Homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11. These measures have helped disrupt known plots against the United States since 9/11.

Once again, is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading a leading newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal?

We assess that al Qaeda’s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the US population.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by watching television news, local channels included?

We assess that al Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading the footnotes of the wikipedia entry on al Qaeda?

To be sure, there are some interesting nuggets in the NIE summary that suggest that the intelligence community might know one or two details that are not already known by the rest of us.

It is conceivable that its discussion of two subjects—the emerging importance of al Qaeda in Iraq, and developments in Pakistan’s tribal areas—might be backed by some highly specific intelligence, based upon interrogations, communications intercepts, and other forms of spycraft.

But on the whole, the NIE appears, at least in its unclassified form, to be a shining example of bureaucratic self-protection. The CIA and affiliated agencies do not want to be wrong again; and they have found a way never to be wrong: by stating the obvious and calling it a National Intelligence Estimate.


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