Seeking for Strategy: The National Intelligence Council in the Last Quarter Century

by Gregory F. Treverton

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

A few months before I left the Chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC), I hosted a reunion of my predecessors reaching back to the fall of the Soviet Union. The day was a very good one, and one colleague suggested he and I edit a book of chapters with Chairs reflecting on their tenures.[1] This is a summary of that story of a storied organization, the NIC. For most of its now nearly forty years of exist­ence, the NIC provided strategic analysis to senior U.S. policymakers. Its premier products were National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). Those usually sought to reach into the future and always tried to frame the issue in its broader context—that is, to be strategic.

Strategic Analysis and the “Big Job”—America’s World Role

When Harry Truman set up the strategic intelligence function at the end of World War II, he understood that the United States had been thrust into a global role for which it was not prepared. But he could have anticipated neither how fully and nor how long this new global role would be dominated by the Cold War, which lent a sharp focus—perhaps too sharp—to strategic analysis.

The NIC’s predecessor, the Office (and Board) of National Estimates, was abolished in 1973 by William Colby, then director of Central Intelligence (DCI), because it was deemed to have become too distant from the policymakers it was intended to serve. As Colby wrote later:

I had sensed an ivory-tower mentality in the Board; its composition had tended to shift to a high proportion of senior analysts who had spent most of their careers at [CIA] and who had developed a “mind-set” about a number of the issues in opposition to the views of the Pentagon and because of the way [President Richard] Nixon and [National Security Adviser Henry] Kissinger had excluded them from some of the White House’s more sensitive international dealings.[2]

Colby replaced the Office with National Intelligence Officers (NIOs) who had regional and functional beats mirroring the States Department. The NIOs reported directly to the DCI but were collected into the NIC in 1979.

This story of the NIC begins after the Cold War ended. Yet earlier NIEs evoke the NIC’s Cold War focus. Much of the NIC’s estimating then was solving strategic puzzles, questions that had answers but were hidden from view by Soviet secrecy.[3]

Evolution of Select Intelligence Activities
Year Administration Organization Comment
1950 Truman Office of National Estimates (ONE)
  • Newly created organization
  • Creates first National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)
1973 Nixon National Intelligence Officers (NIOs)
  • Replaces ONE
  • Greater focus on practical intelligence
  • Restructured to mirror State Department geographies
1979 Carter
  • NIOs consolidated into NIC
1997 Clinton National Intelligence Council (NIC)
  • Global Trends Series began as a classified report
2000 onward Bush, Obama, Trump
  • Global Trends Report expanded to unclassified audience with multiple inputs
2004 Bush Intelligence Community
  • Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA)

The 11/3 series on Soviet strategic nuclear forces was virtually a continuous enterprise, one year’s edition leading directly into the next.[4] To be sure, it projected into the future but mostly by trying to solve the puzzles of Soviet production rates, payloads and accuracy. Others, though, were strategic in seeking to understand the various dimensions of the Soviet threat—for instance, NIE 11/4-77, Soviet Strategic Ob­jectives, January 1997, which asked the big question of what the Soviet Union was up to in the world.[5] Another Cold War theme was the cohesion of the Warsaw Pact; see, for instance, NIE 11/12-83, Military Reliability of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact Allies, December 1982. Several years later, NIE 11/2-9-88 Soviet Policy toward Eastern Europe, published in May 1988 laid out three scenarios for revolutionary change in Eastern Europe.[6]

That bipolar world imploded with the collapse of the Soviet empire, and with it the NIC’s over-arching focus on the Soviet threat. The NIC needed to turn its attention toward the regional conflicts that emerged in the Cold War’s wake, notably in the Balkans and then in other regions where conflicts frozen over by the Cold War began to thaw—especially in the greater Middle East. Shortly before this story of the NIC began, NIE15-90 Yugoslavia Transformed, 18 October 1990, predicted the break-up of Yugoslavia with stunning prescience. However, in yet another cautionary tale about relations between intelligence and policy, it had virtually no impact on U.S. policy.[7] A later NIE had more impact but not without controversy. It concluded that if the NATO forces then enforcing a ceasefire in Bosnia were with­drawn quickly—President Clinton hoped to have the U.S. out by the end of the year, 1996—the almost certain result was renewed civil war. A 1994 NIE questioned whether an independent Ukraine would exist within the same borders ten years hence. It caused a furor when it leaked, but turned out to be prescient—if ten years ahead of its time![8]

Atop the Agenda: China and Terrorism

Not surprisingly, China became a more and more important NIC subject, especially more recently as China’s engagements beyond its border increased and became more muscular and as expectations seemed dashed that China would become more plural, if not more democratic, as it became richer. Indeed, though not surprisingly, NIC assessments trace the arc of change in China. By the late 1990s, NIC assessments conveyed the message that China, sharply focused on economic development, was also determined to avoid military confrontation with the United States. While some in Congress com­plained about this portrayal of China as too rational and conflict-avoiding, the NIC stuck to its guns.

By the end of the Obama Administration, a major NIC analysis of Sino-Russian relations concluded that while the two would aid each other when the cost was low, no strategic alliance was in the offing, for two reasons. First, China still cared enough about its relations with the United States to avoid need­lessly irritating Washington, and, perhaps more important, in any strategic alliance, Russia would be the junior partner, which didn’t seem part of Vladimir Putin’s imaginings for his country!

With 9/11, terrorism immediately dominated the agenda. It wasn’t as though the NIC hadn’t been addressing terrorism, though it had, perhaps unwisely, ceded the lead in strategic analysis to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center when that was established in 1986. The NIC re-created a National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for transnational threats, and a study the NIC commissioned from the Congressional Research Service in 2000 laid out possible terror scenarios, including one using airplanes to attack Washington government facilities. More than one NIC Chair was concerned that the U.S. response to terrorism was too militarized and too tactical. To be sure, unravelling terror networks is critical, but so is understanding in depth where terrorists come from and why they do what they do. The NIC sought to answer those strategic questions in a series of estimates and other papers.

The strategic illogic of going to war in Iraq in 2003 was vivid to another Chair in his puzzlement about how the war became inevitable, and his regret that, while the decision was a policy choice, the NIC and intelligence didn’t do more to ask the questions that should have been asked but weren’t. The next Chair, did his own “ethical inventory” as war loomed. Having decided that, his qualms aside, he could do more inside than out, he pressed on policy counterparts the conclusions of two NIC assessments done just before he arrived: the invasion would spur terrorism and evoke age-old occupations of Arab lands. He also stepped close to the line between intelligence and policy line by suggesting what might mitigate the occupation—a quick turn-over to Iraqi control or UN responsibility. A leaked NIE in the summer of 2004, also prescient about Iraq’s travails, earned the NIC a Wall Street Journal editorial reference to Langley’s—the location of CIA headquarters, where the NIC sat and still is located—insurgency against the Bush Administration. So much for speaking truth to power!

The Expanding Strategic Map

With the overlay of the processes of globalization, strategic analysis had to confront new kinds of chal­lenges—not just terrorism, but also migration, infectious disease, climate change, cyber security—and in parts of the world that had up until then been of secondary concern, becoming important only if the Soviet-American conflict made them so. The NIC responded to the changed map in a variety of ways. New NIO portfolios were created and adjusted—first an NIO Global Issues, later the recreation of one for Transnational Threats, focusing on terrorism but also addressing drug trafficking and organized crime; still later an NIO for Cyber. The most recent addition, in 2014, was an NIO for Technology, on the recognition that a globalized world had blurred any distinction between “military” and “civilian” technology almost to the vanishing point. In the process, the NIC grew, but only modestly, reaching 17 NIOs and about 150 total staff by 2017. “Hot” accounts, like the Middle East and South Asia, were beefed up.

Telling the story of a post-bipolar world required reaching out to new places and sources of information. Reaching outside the U.S. government to experts became imperative—to Wall Street on global econom­ics; to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose presence in African hot spots dwarfed that of the government; to experts who knew and sometimes traveled to places, like Iran, where the govern­ment had no presence. So too, the emerging issues in this more and more fractured world were often not ones for which secret sources were much help. The implications of climate change for water and food, and thus for conflict over them, were hardly secret. Yet they had to be drawn with care and in collaboration with the leading experts who more often were in the private sector than the government.

The NIC reached out in a variety of ways, especially through the NIC Associates, later Intelligence Community Associates. These numbered several hundred by 2017 and were selected by the NIOs from experts in think tanks, the academy and the business world. Most did not have security clearances. They were consulted informally, for instance when they had travelled to countries of interest; they were asked to produce papers or to prepare trips. One group of strategists and international relations specialists met often over a number of years to review NIC products. Had they constituted a university department, it would have been easily the best in the world.

Branding the NIC: Global Trends

The signature NIC outreach became the Global Trends series. Begun in 1997 as a classified experiment in thinking out several decades, by the 2017 version it had become a noted—and unclassified—NIC brand, looked to around the world by governments, experts, and business leaders as a baseline for think­ing about the future. The 2017 version of Global Trends was released in a day-long public event at the Newseum in Washington. In producing it, NIC officers traveled to more than 30 countries, reaching out not just to foreign government officials and think tanks but also to societal groups, holding focus groups with students, entrepreneurs, women’s groups, and others. In all, they touched some 2000 people in one way or another.

To drive thinking about the longer term, the NIC created a Long-Range Analysis Unit, which then be­came the Strategic Futures Group (SFG). SFG did the lion’s share of work in producing Global Trends, but it also became the focal point for thinking about cross-cutting issues that touched but did not fall neatly within the NIO portfolios—including climate change, food and water, health, governance, values, and the changing face of war. These unclassified products actually had begun at the beginning of this story of the NIC. In the early 1990s the NIC produced a paper on future humanitarian emergencies that became a minor best-seller at the United Nations. At the turn of the century, the NIC produced papers on global infectious disease and on migration. The health work opened a new collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control, with officials from there seconded to the NIC. NIC work on climate change began in the mid-2000s, with a major study of the security implications of climate change; it was classi­fied only because it judged the capabilities of various countries to deal with the change. Slightly later the NIC took on issues of water and food security. What was striking over time was how much non-intelligence agencies, like USAID, came to value NIC publications on these issues. Those publications were authoritative but unclassified, came with the imprimatur of intelligence but could be used freely with outside experts and foreign governments.

Nor could the changed strategic map continue to have only a blank spot where the United States should be. The Community’s, and the NIC’s, focus on foreign intelligence ending at the water’s edge perhaps made some sense during the Cold War. Then, as a first approximation it could be assumed that Moscow would do what it would do, never mind what the U.S. did, and the challenge for intelligence was to understand it. That assumption is captured in Harold Brown’s famous line to Congress about the U.S-Soviet nuclear competition: “when we build, the Soviets build; when we stop, they build.”[9]

It made absolutely no sense after the Cold War, when, especially, terrorists were constantly probing for where the country was vulnerable. Slowly, perhaps even stealthily, the NIC began to consider the impact of the U.S. more in its work, especially in conferences and Global Trends. The NIO for Latin America became the NIO for the Western Hemisphere, with the United States explicitly part of the portfolio. The 2017 Global Trends work began with a wonderful paper by U.S. academic specialists that sought to winkle out what were the half-buried assumptions in the last half century of American foreign policy.

Sustaining Relevance…

For NIC chairs before 2005, relevance was a constant concern. After all, the NIC’s predecessor had been abolished when it was deemed too detached from the policy process it was meant to serve. All NIC Chairs struggled with the tension between their strategic products, NIEs especially, and the whirl of policymaking. NIEs could be many things but quickly produced was seldom one of them! Most Chairs asked, sooner or later, who are NIEs for and why do we do them?

Day to day, virtually every Chair grappled with the same challenge: how to make NIEs more readable and shorter, with more engaging summaries—and ultimately more relevant as cumbersome documents in a fast-moving policy process. All tinkered, or more, with the size and shape of NIEs. One sought to expand the range of possible outcomes and make assumptions and uncertainties clearer. He also devised the President’s Summary, on the idea that if the president didn’t read it, other senior officials would; a later Chair did something similar, changing bulleted Key Judgments to Key Insights weaved into a “story,” on the hope that if called “insights,” sometimes they might be insightful! NIEs had been varying lengths but had grown so much by the mid-2000s that the Chair set a limit of twenty pages, and also insisted that dissents be framed as differing views, in the text, not as agency footnotes.

All the Chairs sought other ways to support policy. In earlier years, Special NIEs, or SNIEs, were some­times done on a short turn-around, and other, shorter art forms were always part of the NIC’s repertoire. And Chairs realized that, in a very real sense, the NIC’s products—or better say, outputs—were the NIOs, not the NIEs. The latter were the NIC’s homework and calling cards, but it was the people in a position to be in meetings or have informal conversations that mattered most. Most Chairs wanted to see the NIOs but not too much—preferring that they be downtown talking to their policy counterparts.

And Credibility

At the same time, no Chair was a stranger to being second-guessed—or criticized. One inherited a 1995 NIE on The Long-Range Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, which identified the obstacles the would-be nuclear attackers—North Korea, Iran, and Iraq—would confront in building a capability to strike the United States. The NIE was immediately met with the cry of “politicization”: the Clinton Ad­ministration was seeking to avoid deploying an anti-ballistic missile system. Two years later, Congress had created a commission, chaired by the once and future secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Commission literally invaded the NIC’s spaces. The Commission widened the aperture on the missile issue, raising the possibility that foreign assistance might shorten the timeline for the would-be attackers. The Chair at the time, though, found Rumsfeld’s side comments on analytic tradecraft generally on the mark, and Rumsfeld remained a willing and generous reader of NIC drafts.

Whatever else can be said of the 2002 NIE on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction—Iraq’s Continuing Pro­grams for Weapons of Mass Destruction—it surely was relevant, with a vengeance.[10] That NIE was pub­lished during a nine-month interim between the tenures of two Chairs. It was done in haste, three weeks. Yet the problem was not the judgment; a wise student of intelligence, Richard Betts, concluded that based on the available evidence, “no reasonable analyst” could have concluded that Iraq had no WMD.[11] The problem was the confidence of the assessment, especially as phrased in the unclassified “white paper” that was released at the time of the estimate. The framers of the NIE had achieved what NIC Chairs sought but seldom got—sharp, clean judgments with a minimum of qualifiers. Trouble was, this was not a case for such clarity. The qualifications in the full estimate were lost in the furor, as were two NIC papers at the same time—Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq and Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq—that set out the travails the United States would confront in Iraq.

In the end, much like the Yugoslavia NIE a decade earlier, this one probably had little effect on policy. The war had long since become inevitable; perhaps the NIE made it easier for Democrats who didn’t want to look soft on terrorism to vote in favor of war. However, as a result, the NIC came under in­creased scrutiny, not just from within the executive and from Congress, but from the public, especially the 9/11 and WMD Commissions. NIC Chairs found that their task had suddenly shifted from being relevant to rebuilding credibility, with constituencies both within the executive and beyond. When Con­gress got more directly into the act, a series of Intelligence Community Directives in response sought to address the flaws of the 2002 NIE, especially in sourcing. Meetings of the National Intelligence Board to approve NIEs came to have representatives from all the collection sources present, testifying to their con­fidence in their sources. Yet whatever their merits, there is room for concern that the directives about estimative tradecraft have made the process even more cumbersome and analysts even more risk-averse.

Soon another storm erupted, this one over the 2007 NIE, Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. After the post-WMD reforms, the tradecraft was impeccable, including an eleventh-hour scrubbing of new evidence. The problem was that the estimate had been produced under the assumption that it, and its Key Judgments, would remain secret. When the Bush Administration felt it had to release the KJs pub­licly, a firestorm ensued. The estimate concluded that Iran had suspended its nuclear weaponization pro­gram in 2003 but, given the assumption of secrecy, did not advertise loudly enough that the conclusion did not apply to nuclear enrichment, which paced Iran’s program. The NIE thus seemed to undercut the Administration’s effort to increase pressure on Iran.

IRTPA and the Future of the NIC

More than anything else, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRPTA) of 2004 and its aftermath have shaped the current NIC. With the creation of the DNI as the nation’s senior intelligence officer, both the President’s Daily Brief and immediate support to the policy committees, the Principals Committee and the Deputies Committee, fell to the ODNI. A separate ODNI staff ran the PDB, and other agencies contributed, though the CIA still did the bulk of the writing on PDB items. Current intelligence support to the policy committees moved to the NIC, much to the surprise of the NIC at the time. That change produced a major plot shift in the NIC’s story of strategic intelligence: it dramatically accentuated the tyranny of the tactical. As an example, in 2016 the NIC produced about 700 pieces of paper, and more than half of those were memorandums from an NIO to the National Security Adviser, her deputy or another senior National Security Council official. They came directly from the deliberations of Principals Committee or, especially, the Deputies Committee. Not all were purely tactical; some asked questions like “if we do X, how will Putin respond.” But all drove out time for more strategic analysis.

The second change with the creation of the DNI meant that the NIC came to be part of a larger bureau­cracy in a way it hadn’t quite been before. Before the IRTPA only two organizations worked for the DCI in his second hat, as overseer of the entire Community—the Community Management Staff (CMS), whose name changed several times, for budgets and the NIC for substance. CMS, by whatever name, was mostly a budget shop, staffed by officers seconded from other agencies. It wasn’t likely to get in the NIC’s way, and several Chairs developed especially fruitful partnerships with the heads of CMS. The NIC depended for support functions on the CIA, and the fact that both the CIA and the NIC worked for the DCI, albeit under different hats, made for relatively easy cooperation with the CIA. So did the fact that the NIC was and is located on the seventh floor of the CIA building, just around the corner from the office of the DCI, now DCIA.

Not so the ODNI, which took on most of its own support functions. The NIC Chair was first dual-hatted as the Deputy Director for Analysis, and later the NIC was tucked as one of four organizations under the Deputy Director for Integration. In standing itself up, the ODNI understandably had moved fast, and in the process earned special scrutiny from Congress. As a result, the NIC sometimes was caught in the backwash of attentions not really relevant to it. For instance, in competing for people, the ODNI had offered promotions, and as a result ended up top-heavy. That meant pressure across the ODNI to downgrade positions. But the NIC always was and always needs to be a senior organization, for it is a rare GS-14 who could speak with authority at White House meetings of deputy secretaries.

The other plot twist in the NIC’s story after the IRTPA was the creation of, first, mission managers for selected issues, then National Intelligence Managers (NIMs) for all NIO portfolios. Several NIOs left in protest at what seemed the downgrading of the NIC, and the arrangements are still a work in progress. In principle, the creation of the NIM’s offered the NIC the chance to concentrate on what it does best—intelligence analysis. It practice it was more complicated, adding another layer of coordination and tasks to the NIC’s busy days, and further reducing the NIC’s independence—and perhaps its stature. Geography also mattered: the NIC stayed at CIA headquarters, but the NIMs were located with the DNI a Liberty Crossing, a few miles away. Suffice to say this sub-plot will continue to play out.

Now, the need for strategic analysis is at least as great as in Truman’s time. Then, the world was hard­ening into a very definite shape; now it is very shapeless and often frightening for that fact. Then, the fact that the United States would lead was almost a given, and the question was how. Now, the question is not just how the United States will lead, but how much, or even whether it will lead. The NIC’s future will be what DNIs and senior policy officials want it to be, whether that role is current support or asking what Willmore Kendall seventy years ago called “the big job—the carving out of United States destiny in the world as a whole.”[12] I suspect that is true even for Trump, whether he seeks “America first” or “America first but not alone,” whether he regards countries as mostly competitors or potential allies. He seems incurious in the extreme, but those around him will want to know more about those countries and forces they fear or seek to shape.

Surely, the nation needs the NIC, or something like it, more than ever. The line from John 8:32: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” is emblazoned in the main entrance to CIA headquarters. It seems slightly odd, on two counts. Unlike divine truth perhaps, intelligence “truth” is almost always approximate, the closest analysts can get, especially so for mysteries but also for puzzles. Perhaps more to the point, while divine truth may liberate, the truth of intelligence is as likely to constrain policy as to free it. But when truth itself is being questioned, when power sometimes seems to extend to the power to disregard or alter the truth, the strategic mission that Harry Truman set in motion two generations ago is more critical than ever.

[1] Robert Hutchings and Gregory F. Treverton, eds., Telling Truth to Power: A History of the National Intelligence Council, forthcoming.

[2] William Colby and Peter Forbath, Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978, p. 351.

[3] By contrast to puzzles, mysteries have no definitive answer; they are contingent, they depend, perhaps not least on what the United States does. See Gregory F. Treverton, “Risks and Riddles,” Smithsonian, June 2007.

[4] See for example, NIE 11/3/8-88, Soviet Forces and Capabilities for Strategic Nuclear Conflict through the Late 1990s, declassified and available at cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/at-cold-wars-end-us-intelligence-on-the-soviet-union-and-eastern-europe-1989-1991/16526pdffiles/NIE11-3-8-88.pdf. Many of the Cold War NIEs were organized in series, like the 11/3 series for Soviet strategic forces.

[5] This and the next estimate can be found, declassified, at cia.gov/library/readingroom/search/site/NIEs%20on%20Soviet%20Union.

[6] See Benjamin J. Fischer, ed., At Cold War’s End: US Intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1989-91 (Central Intelli­gence Agency, 1999), pp 155-6. This volume contains the full texts of the critical CIA and NIC analyses published during the period. See also Gerald K. Haines and Robert E. Leggett, eds., CIA’s Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-91 (Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2001).

[7] Available at cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/1990-10-01.pdf. For an analysis of the case, see Gregory F. Treverton and Renanah Miles, Unheeded Warning of War: Why Policymakers Ignored the 1990 Yugoslavia Estimate, (Washington: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2015), available at cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/csi-intelligence-and-policy-monographs.

[8] Daniel Williams and R. Jeffrey Smith, “US Intelligence Sees Economic Plight Leading to Breakup of Ukraine,” Washington Post, January 25, 1994.

[9] Suzy Platt, ed., Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service, Wash­ington: Congressional Research Service, 1989, p. 80

[10] The key judgments of this estimate were declassified and released in July 2003. See nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB129/nie.pdf. A redacted version of the full estimate was released in 2014. See scribd.com/doc/259216899/Iraq-October-2002-NIE-on-WMDs-unedacted-version.

[11] Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 115-6.

[12] Willmoore Kendall, “The Function of Intelligence,” World Politics, 1, 4 (July 1949), p. 548. (Kendall’s first name is variously spelled with one or two o’s.)

Published on February 16, 2018 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow