Intelligence Estimates: How Useful to Congress?

CRS Report for Congress

National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) are often of considerable interest to many Members of Congress. They represent the most formal assessment of a given issue by the U.S. Intelligence Community and address issues of major national security importance which may require congressional action. The intelligence process, however, is not an exact science and, on occasion, NIEs have proved unreliable because they were based on insufficient evidence or contained faulty analysis. This was demonstrated in the NIE produced in 2002 on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, parts of which were significantly inaccurate. NIEs can provide insights into the likely effects of certain policy approaches, but they are not usually made to take into account the details of planned U.S. diplomatic, economic, military, or legislative initiatives.

In the past, Congress was not a principal consumer of NIEs but now appears increasingly interested in obtaining NIEs on crucial security issues despite or perhaps because of the experience with the 2002 Iraq NIE. The FY2007 Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 109-364, section 1213) specifically requested a comprehensive NIE on Iran. In February 2007 the Intelligence Community also released an NIE on Prospects for Iraq’s Stability in response to a congressional request.

In early December 2007 the Director of National Intelligence released the Key Judgments of a National Intelligence Estimate, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. The new NIE judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Even though the NIE did recognize that “with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” this dramatic release of the Key Judgments on Iran heightened interest in the NIE process and its relevance to policymaking. Some observers assert, however, that public discussion on specific NIEs may not adequately reflect the process by which they are prepared or their inherent limitations.