National Intelligence Estimate

National Intelligence Estimate


National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) are reports by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), drawing on estimative views from across the intelligence community. The practice of creating NIEs developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as a response to previous intelligence failures.

Background on NIEs

Despite the many advances in military and civilian intelligence that attended the successful completion of World War II and the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) two years later, both CIA and military intelligence were taken completely by surprise when North Korean troops invaded South Korea in June 1950. In the months leading up to the invasion, intelligence personnel attached to General Douglas MacArthur's Tokyo headquarters regularly issued reports that downplayed the threat from North Korea and its Chinese allies, whose entrance into the ensuing war in late 1950 would greatly expand the scale of the conflict. Determined to create a framework and mechanism for the production of reliable intelligence estimates, General Walter Bedell Smith, when he became Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) in October 1950, instituted the concept of the NIE.

Today NIEs are the responsibility of the NIC, which serves the entire intelligence community and reports to DCI in his capacity as head of that community. It is the job of the NIC to bring together estimative views, not only from the CIA, but also from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the four military services, the National Security Agency, the Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the intelligence units of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Energy, and the Treasury Department. The directors of all of these organizations together constitute the National Foreign Intelligence Board, which reviews each NIE and must approve it before it is sent to the president and other national leaders.

Since 1950, numerous NIEs have been produced, and those that relate to matters that are now moot—for example, the conflicts of Cold War era—have been declassified. This has enabled at least some analysis of their accuracy. On the negative side, an NIE in 1962 maintained that Russian president Nikita Khrushchev would not put missiles in Cuba, a prediction proven inaccurate by the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of that year. Likewise, NIEs failed to predict the Yom Kippur War of 1973, or the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1978. Most infamously, in 1989, an NIE showed that Saddam Hussein's Iraq, exhausted by an eight-year war with Iran, would not instigate any significant military actions in the next three years—a prediction proven wrong by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

Yet, there were also numerous successes in the NIEs regarding the nation that most clearly threatened U.S. national security in the years from 1950 to 1990: the Soviet Union. As with much else about intelligence work, where NIEs are concerned, it is primarily the failures that attract attention. Successes, on the other hand, either remain hidden entirely from view, or, where the success in question is an accurate estimate or prediction, hindsight makes the wisdom behind it seem self-evident. Yet, as NIC director Joseph S. Nye, Jr., showed in a 1994 piece for Foreign Affairs, analysis of declassified materials indicates that NIEs on Soviet capabilities and intentions were usually quite accurate. Furthermore, NIEs on the situation in Vietnam during the 1960s tended to be much more accurate than the prognoses of the White House or the Pentagon: whereas the nation's military and political leaders continued to believe until early 1968 that victory was inevitable, NIEs offered gloomy estimates on the chances of a U.S. military victory in Southeast Asia much earlier.

Nye also noted that NIEs have been faulted for over-estimating Soviet military strength, but much of this occurred in the era before reconnaissance satellites, when U.S. intelligence had to rely much more on the Soviets' own, often exaggerated, claims as to their military capabilities. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, when America had satellites in the skies, it was in retreat globally, and NIEs of the time tended to underestimate Soviet power. As for the failure of the intelligence community to predict the fall of the Soviet Union—a failure that led Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) to call for the abolition of the CIA—Nye observed that even Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev failed to predict that his government would collapse as quickly as it did.

Developments of the 1990s and later. In an attempt to develop better NIEs, Nye reported in 1994, the NIC had "increased its emphasis on alternative scenarios rather than single-point predictions." On the one hand, NIEs were less likely to predict a specific outcome, and instead tended to offer a variety of possible results contingent on other events—even ones that might be considered unlikely. On the other hand, national intelligence estimates eschewed what Nye described as "vague words like 'possibly' or 'small but significant chance'" in favor of numerical percentages or odds for or against a particular event occurring.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, present an example of an event that would have seemed preposterous if someone had predicted it even a few days earlier. Yet, in the aftermath, one of the first questions Americans asked themselves was how their national intelligence and security apparatus had failed to see the attacks coming. Later, as President George W. Bush began to call for a war on Iraq as a sponsor of international terrorism, this claim was news to much of the public. Yet, the CIA had in its files such damning information as the fact that Saddam and Osama bin Laden had signed a non-aggression pact as far back as 1993; that al-Qaeda operatives had received training in Baghdad; and that Iraqi intelligence officers had met with bin Laden in Afghanistan and the Sudan.

According to a blistering analysis by Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post in October 2002, the reason that this information had not reached the general public was that it simply was not fashionable among policy circles in the 1990s. Under the administration of President William J. Clinton, Hoagland maintained, "the need not to know very much about Iraq and terrorism was very strong." Due to predictive failures in the NIEs, Bush had not been inclined to trust them, but the character of post-September 2001, NIEs reflected a new direction in national intelligence. The threats of North Korean missile attacks, and al-Qaeda computer hackers, both treated as remote possibilities before, were now being taken more seriously in NIEs. In 2002 and 2003, the brinksmanship of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, along with the sensitive data found on captured al-Qaeda computers, reinforced the advisability of this change.



Donnelly, John. "N. Korean Missile Has U.S. Range." Boston Globe. (February 13, 2003): A1.

Gellman, Barton. "Cyber-Attacks by al-Qaeda Feared." Washington Post. (June 27, 2002): A1.

Hoagland, Jim. "CIA's New Old Iraq File." Washington Post. (October 20, 2002): B7.

"Let's Have Straight Talk on Missile Defenses." Aviation Week & Space Technology 145, no. 16 (October 14,1996): 86.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. "Peering into the Future." Foreign Affairs 73, no. 4 (July/August 1994): 82.

Wall, Robert. "Review of NMD Fallout Underway." Aviation Week & Space Technology 152, no. 19 (May 8,2000): 31–32.

Zelikow, Philip. "The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States." Foreign Affairs 79, no. 4 (July/August 2000): 154–155.


National Intelligence Council. < > (March 17, 2003).


DCI (Director of the Central Intelligence Agency)
Intelligence Community
NFIB (United States National Foreign Intelligence Board)
NIC (National Intelligence Council)
Nongovernmental Global Intelligence and Security

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