On July 12, (a piece of) a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was released/declassified, entitled “Terrorist Threats to the U.S. Homeland“.  This post discusses a. how little is revealed in a document of this type; b. a summary of contents; c. the news analysis, which in many cases is amplified; and what to make of the whole process.  An NIE is supposed to be a substantive document, but you’ll pardon me for thinking it’s more substantive in its private form than in its public form.  And though announced with appropriate pomp and circumstance, there’s just not that much here.  We get the executive summary, not the report.

Seven pages minus 5 pages equals two pages
You can see what I mean by looking at the lack of contents.  The report is 7 pages long, in pdf: Page one, the title page; page two describes the makeup of the National Intelligence Council (basically an author page without author names); pages three and four describe the NIE and a little on their importance and methodology.  Significant here, on page three, is a kind of assurance that information is being reviewed by others, rather than being “stovepiped” to the top without assessment for source and accuracy from intelligence analysts.  Now that’s a relief, at least, to read that intelligence politicians are aware that we know this has happened in the past. 

Page five is “An Explanation of Estimative Language,” which allows some clues into how such reports are worded technically.  Looking at the blue box which comprises this page, we can see that two important kinds of risk analysis are occurring in the NIE process.  First, risk analysis on threat of terrorism, which is the subject of the report; and second, risk management for the intelligence community in case the NIE is incorrect.  (Don’t think I am discounting this latter function: no other course of action can protect the intelligence community from being gutted if there is another attack.   They have to protect themselves or they can’t do their job.)

In the blue box, we see that “High Confidence” that a incident X will occur does not mean that it is Likely to Occur, but that the Information Used has come from a source in which we have that confidence.  “Moderate Confidence” means that the intelligence information is somewhat conflicted or the analysts (unspecified) have varying opinions as to what that information discloses.  Along with this, there is a bar of white to grey, which simultaneously recalls our publicly-used rainbow-shaded Terrorist Threat barometer, only the lack of color indicates more sobriety, and the shades of grey indicate remote possibility; unlikely; even chance; likely; and almost certainly.  None of these words are used later on in the NIE.

The two pages
So at last on pages six and seven we get to the NIE “Key Judgments”, which do not actually estimate a terrorist threat in terms of the shaded bar, as noted previously.  These statements, summarized, follow:

  1. We are still under a “persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years.”  (Three years is time limit of study.)
  2. Counterterrorism efforts world-wide have succeeded in “disrupting known plots against the United States since 9/11.”
  3. “Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serous terrorist threat to the Homeland.”  Here Iraq is recalled, language very similar to the July Iraq Benchmark Report, in that al-Qa’ida plans high-profile and high-impact plots, encourages copycats. 
  4. Problems in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas provides a new locus for congregating and planning attacks such as the 9/11 plot, which was planned in a similar environment in Afghanistan.
  5. Therefore, we are in a heightened threat environment (Code Orange, no doubt), where al Qa’ida might plan biological, radiological, nuclear attacks.  Also Hizbullah is mentioned as a likely antagonist should we threaten either their group or Iran.  Homegrown “bubba groups” or American Muslims are mentioned and pretty much dismissed.
  6. Globalization in general, and Salafi internet sites in particular, are noted as vectors that spread terrorist rhetoric, information, and violence–to “enable even small numbers of alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources” without impetus by any centralized authority.
  7. These global threats “challenge current U.S. defensive efforts and the tools we use to detect and disrupt plots.”

Predominant press reactions:

  1. Accenting stasis: At the NYT, Scott Shane calling the NIE “same-old, same-old“–no improvement, overall, in the situation at large.   The Washington Post’s Michael Abramowitz notes that the NIE calls Bush’s Iraq policy into question, as Iraq becomes a rallying point for further extremism.   FoxNews, generally favorable to this conservative administration, reported that Mr. Bush said “things would be a lot worse”–which means, that’s the best that can be said about the conclusions of the report–which means, stasis.
  2. Another set of NYT articles focuses on Pakistan: a. Mark Mazetti & David Sanger  call the NIE “a bleak assessment” that notes that Pakistan’s tribal areas are increasingly out of Pakistan’s governmental control.  (They also note No. 1 above, that the battle is in Iraq but the terrorists are in Afghanistan/Pakistan area.  b. These two distinguished journalists then reprise this article and discuss Pakistan’s slow reaction time to threats and what the U.S. might do if pushed. 
  3. Fred Kaplan over at Slate Magazine has interpreted the “globalization clauses” (what I have as N0. 6 and 7 above) is an increased likelihood of lost privacy for and domestic spying upon the American citizenry under the Patriot act and in the name of terror prevention.  Yes, I think that’s probable, and something to beware.
  4. I found no one who wanted to relate the NIE to our current conduct vis-a-vis  Iran, and to me that was the most significant portion: it explains why we are going more slowly with Iran than we did with Iraq, despite the many grievances publicly noted, actual or perceived: a. hostage-takings, b. nuclear enrichment, c. anti-Israeli rhetoric, d. weapons and aid to insurgencies in Lebanon and Iraq and Afghanistan, e. et cetera.

What should the report have said or given us? 
It looks right to me, insofar as two pages can expose: Pakistan has most of the conditions that Afghanistan did, pre-2001; al-Qa’ida is in Iraq and they are high-profile there; the internet shows we don’t know how to moderate or engage extremist rhetoric; and while it protects the Bush administration to some degree (which we should expect, somewhat) it does evaluate, correctly, that: We live in an very uncertain world. 

This NIE is a status report more than a prediction.  Its verdict: we have met the challenge in some ways and in other ways, we don’t have a clue.