National Intelligence Estimates: What is the process? Who is involved?

By | June 6, 2008

A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) represents the U.S. intelligence community's most authoritative and coordinated written assessment of a specific national-security issue. The concept of an "estimative" intelligence report was established by the National Security Act of 1947 following the surprise invasion of South Korea by North Korean troops. Since its creation the NIE process has undergone a series of overhauls to increase interagency collaboration. Today as many as seventeen government agencies and departments participate in drafting the documents.

But as former intelligence officer Robert L. Suettinger notes in his history of the NIE, intelligence estimates are by definition controversial products. "In discussing large or complex topics," Suettinger writes, "National Intelligence Estimates necessarily have to delve into a realm of speculation." The most cited recent example of a poorly drafted NIE is the October 2002 prewar estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (PDF). In July 2004, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee found that "most of the major key judgments" in the 2002 Iraq NIE–which were cited by President Bush and other policymakers in their case for war–"either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting." Changes made to the NIE process after the 2002 Iraq report have been incorporated into recent estimates, including the November 2007 assessment of Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Intelligence Gatekeepers

Intelligence estimates are coordinated by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and is the intelligence community's "center for mid-term and long-term strategic thinking." The NIC employs thirteen National Intelligence Officers–senior experts drawn from agencies of the intelligence community and from outside the government–who, among their other responsibilities, head up the NIE writing process. The current chairman of the NIC is Thomas Fingar, who also serves as deputy director of national intelligence for analysis.

The NIE Writing Process

The NIE process from inception to completion progresses as follows:

  • A senior executive branch official, a committee chair of the House or Senate, or a senior military official can request an NIE. An estimate can also be initiated independently by the National Intelligence Council. The request is authorized by the Director of National Intelligence.
  • The NIC prepares the terms of reference, an outline of the key issues, and questions to be covered in the estimate.
  • Before an NIE is drafted the intelligence officer produces a terms of reference paper, or TOR, meant to define the key questions the NIE is to address; sets drafting responsibilities; and establishes a publication schedule. The TOR is circulated throughout the intelligence community for comment.
  • The intelligence officer selects a lead drafter of the NIE or directs another intelligence analyst or outside expert to do so. The draft is typically reviewed by the NIC before it is sent to the U.S. government agencies that are members of the intelligence community, or compile national intelligence on the relevant issue.
  • Agency experts review the draft and prepare comments.
  • Agency representatives meet and discuss the report at an interagency coordination session.
  • Intelligence is vetted by the National Clandestine Service within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to eliminate potentially questionable or unreliable sources.
  • A final draft is distributed for final review to intelligence community experts for their review. In addition, the NIE often includes a summary of the opinions of experts outside the government.
  • The NIC reviews the final draft and then forwards it to the National Intelligence Board (PDF). The board is composed of senior representatives of the intelligence community and is chaired by the DNI.
  • Once an NIE is approved by the National Intelligence Board it is delivered to the requester as well as the president, senior policymakers, and relevant members of Congress.

Up to seventeen agencies and departments are generally involved in the process. They include:


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