This past week, the intelligence community released the latest declassified National Intelligence Report (NIE) on terrorist threats against the United States. Its release and the coverage concerning it show just how unremarkable and anodyne NIEs really are. NIEs are classic statements of the obvious and the information contained in them should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the news with any degree of regularity. NIEs are also political documents and the degree to which they are spun by various interest groups should alarm anyone who had hoped that NIEs would serve as objective sources of intelligence information and guideposts for how foreign and national security policy ought to be constructed.
The authors of the NIE point out that it takes "several months" for the document to be produced. This is amazing, as the NIE says nothing that one cannot find reported in the news and can be written up by a reasonably well-informed person outside of government in about an hour or so. Apparently, I am not alone in thinking this. Of course, there is a need to canvass the intelligence community for dissents but it still shouldn't take "several months" to write up an NIE.
The length of time it takes to write up the NIE becomes all the more astonishing when one considers that there is no mention of specific chatter, leads or other particular references to information that helped shape the writing of the NIE. This probably is because the intelligence community wants to protect sources and methods, but one would hope that national security principals (the President, the Vice President, etc.) and their briefers have access to the aforementioned specific data. I know that if I were in their shoes, I would want that access firsthand and I would want to sift through the data. To be sure, even if sources and methods were revealed, it still would not change the fact that the NIE does little more than state the obvious when it comes to reporting on international developments.
Compounding the fact that the NIE tells us nothing we don't already know is the effort made to spin the NIE to fit particular political agendas. The New York Times coverage is typical of the way in which the release of the NIE was covered and yet, when one reads the actual NIE and compares it to the Times commentary, one wonders if the Times reporters simply read a different document and decided to write a story about it.
It may be that for different people, different parts of the NIE stick out. The part that stuck out for me was the reference to the fact that AQI was "the most visible and capable affiliate" of al Qaeda and that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is "the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland." Contra the Times story, of course, nowhere in the NIE does it say that the war in Iraq "spawned" al Qaeda. Even if you want to argue that the war in Iraq did spawn AQI, you cannot say--as the Times did--that the NIE makes such an assertion. Indeed, nothing even resembling that comment appears in the NIE. Curiously enough, the Times story completely downplays language in the NIE discussing how al Qaeda's efforts have been curbed . . . while—again—making up claims about how the NIE says the Iraq war "spawned" AQI. Apparently, writers at the Times don't think that the rest of us can actually get access to and read the NIE.
Thus, a storyline not even mentioned in the NIE was spread through the mainstream media as accepted gospel and the NIE is cited as a source for that storyline. Meanwhile, the actual commentary in the NIE—that AQI is the most dangerous affiliate and that it wants to strike at the United States directly—received relatively short shrift. This despite emerging stories indicating that al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq may have had a significant hand in planning the recent car bombing in Glasgow. Additionally, there is no attempt to explain away the likelihood that even if al Qaeda didn't exist in Iraq, it would likely invest its resources in countries like Indonesia or Somalia. Nor is there any discussion or commentary as to why having AQI's resources diverted to either Indonesia or Somalia or any other country is preferable to having those resources in Iraq.
Strangely enough, the Times makes no reference to the threat presented by Hezbollah, as indicated in the NIE. In addition, the Times makes no reference to the threat presented by terrorist sites as indicated in the NIE. Was this not important? Why not? If we are going to have a comprehensive discussion and analysis of the terrorist threat, after all, it would do well to discuss all of the major terrorist threats arrayed against the United States. And yet, when it comes to burgeoning threats, the Times and other news outlets were strangely silent, preferring instead to repeat and propagate partisan spin that were issued in response to the release of the NIE.
Maybe from now on, those responsible for issuing NIEs should work to give us genuinely new information instead of simply regurgitating what they and the rest of us hear, see and read in the news. And maybe people should just read NIEs and other such documents before reading news commentary on those documents. That will allow people to make up their own minds concerning what the documents say or don't say. And news outlets will be under greater pressure to get their commentary right if they know that their readers and viewers will look directly to the source to see whether or not matters are being represented fairly and accurately.
We could do worse. And thus far, we have.