The Duck of Minerva

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Intelligence failures and the NIE

September 27, 2006

Steven Taylor approving quotes James Joyner’s dismissal of the ruckus over the NIE:

One would be remiss for failing to note that these are the same intelligence agencies who failed to predict the Iranian Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the war in the Balkans, Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the 9/11 attacks, London bombings, Madrid bombings, and other major events. Or that they opposed the Iraq War to begin with and that this finding vindicates their position.

But did the intelligence agencies fail to predict everything on this list?

1. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was an open secret for quite some time. Hence the 1985 Pressler Amendment that restricted American assistance to Pakistan. I really don’t know if the fact that the administration certified Pakistan’s compliance with non-proliferation objectives because of an “intelligence failure” or because of other, more pressing, political concerns (e.g., the conflict in Afghanistan and other elements of US South Asian policy). Anyone know?

2. It is true that the CIA concluded in 1985 that there was “no basis” for believing that North Korea was seeking nuclear weapons, but it did not rule out the possibility. But concerns among intelligence and State Department officials about North Korean proliferation increased over the next few years. Even in 1984-1985, however, US officials do appear to have been worried about long-term North Korean intentions. Hence the international effort to force North Korea to join the NPT.

3. The Iranian Revolution was clearly an intelligence failure for the US, although some argue that the problem stemmed more from American political processes than the intelligence community itself. Social scientists who study revolutions note, however, that revolutions are, by their very nature, difficult to predict.

The NIE estimates tend to focus on “on-the-path” evaluations of current trends. Brett Marston articulates this point well in his comment on Steven’s post.

With regards to James’s point, there is a difference between predicting specific events and giving your best guess as to current trends. I hope that it’s not the case that the administration is hoping that unforseen events will prove the intelligence agencies wrong; that’s not good planning, it’s wishful thinking.

The fact that intelligence agencies couldn’t predict the activities of un-monitored terrorist cells has almost no bearing on the issue of the NIE; if anything, many intelligence analysts did expect some sort of Al-Qaeda attack on the US homeland, which is about as good as we can hope for given well-known organizational and intelligence problems associated with the attacks.

These problems, moreover, do not necessarily travel to general estimates of what will happen in, for example, Iraq if current trends continue. So I think Joyner doth protest too much. If we dismiss evaluations of current trends, then we cannot engage in any sort of policy making.

We should also, of course, do more “off-the-path” scenario planning, i.e., develop scenarios and possibilities that seem unlikely given current trajectories. One could argue, however, that this kind of contingency planning remains almost totally absent from Bush’s Iraq policy; in other words, I’m not sure how this would cut in favor of the Bush administration.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.