How to Read a National Intelligence Estimate

Much notice has attended the release of the unclassified version of the latest National Intelligence Estimate [NIE] titled “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland.” It contains the rectified juices of all sixteen of our intelligence agencies. Federal statute prohibits disclosing the numbers of employees or the budgets of these agencies, but in aggregate there are well over 100,000 placemen, and unofficial estimates of the combined budgets come to over $40 billion annually. Given the avalanche of “temporary” spending on Iraq and Afghanistan in supplemental appropriations, we would estimate that a figure of $60-$70 billion is closer to the mark. That is a lot of Bentley Arnages for people like Marc Rich, Victor Bout, and our other dubious intelligence contacts.

This gallimaufry of sleuths is nominally presided over by the newly minted Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell. A retired admiral, he might fairly be described as our Canaris in the coal mine: he massages the collective wisdom of the vast intelligence bureaucracy to warn Ma and Pa Kettle of the likelihood of their being extinguished by a bolt of thunder out of darkest Araby.

The public version of the NIE contains only seven pages, and of that, five consist entirely of mumbo-jumbo describing how painstakingly constructed NIEs are. This, one must infer, is the standard backside-covering disclaimer beloved of corporate auditors to avoid shareholder law suits. The meat of the public NIE is barely one and one-half pages.

The title of the NIE itself will be of interest to future generations of historians. It refers, not to terrorist threats to the United States, but to “the US Homeland.” The word “homeland,” which resonates sinisterly like das Vaterland in German or rodina in Russian, was virtually unused before 9/11, and despite its relentless repetition by the Bush administration (to include the name of a cabinet agency), it has thus far refused to lodge itself in colloquial American English. One can hardly imagine an American businessman at an airport bar in Tegucigalpa telling a compatriot, “I’m taking the 9:17 flight to the homeland.” Indeed, while Vaterland or rodina have non-ideological colloquial roots and were expropriated by Hitler and Stalin, “homeland” is a purely ideological construct of Bush administration. The page-and-a-half “Key Judgments” section uses the word “homeland” nine times.

To spare readers the pain and confusion of reading a document assembled by a committee, we will reproduce excerpts of the “Key Judgments” section and annotate them by translating them into ordinary English. Please be warned, however, that in order to faithfully reproduce the reasoning that goes on in government bureaucracies, we are forced to depart from our usual decorum. Unlike Karen Hughes claiming that President Bush never uses profanity, we prefer accuracy to euphemism.

* We assess that greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al-Qa’ida to attack the US Homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the Homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11. These measures have helped disrupt known plots against the United States since 9/11.

“We’ve got to come up with boilerplate to protect the administration from the public perception that Iraq is a dangerous distraction from the real threat emanating from the border areas of Pakistan.”

* We are concerned, however, that this level of international cooperation may wane as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge.

“Our allies aren’t on board with disasters like Iraq or our saber-rattling with Iran. The U.S. public despises foreigners anyway and will welcome a sideswipe at them.”

* Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership.

“We blew it when George, Dick, and Rummy took their eye off the ball in Afghanistan in order to invade Iraq. Furthermore, the shit we stirred up in Iraq makes Sunnis everywhere vulnerable to recruitment by Al Qa’ida. And this Musharraf guy in Pakistan is playing us for suckers. Now, how do we say that in an NIE to save our historical reputations without having Cheney fire our asses and wiretap our families? Call re-write to fuzz it up!”

* Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qa’ida senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qa’ida will intensify its efforts to put operatives here. As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment.

“We need to give the administration some red meat here that they can stoke up the fear factor with. They’re already crawling all over our backs and this will mollify them and save our jobs. In any case, intelligence agencies never go wrong when they make a pessimistic assessment of a threat, and suppose something bad actually happens? Plus, it’s artfully ambiguous to say the United States is currently in a heightened threat environment. Since when? 9/11? Since we invaded Iraq? Since the Democrats took over Congress?”

* Of note, we assess that al-Qa’ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland.

“I know, guys. But did you see this memo from the Veep’s office practically ordering us to link Osama with the insurgents in Iraq? I’ll bet not one single reporter catches that bit about how none of al Qa’ida’s other affiliates is even known to have expressed a desire to attack the United States.”

* We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.

“The good old car bomb is by far the most feasible and reliably lethal instrument of terrorism. And we’ve given whole cadres of car-bombers on-the-job training in Iraq. But the public is far more paranoid about nukes, germs, and gas. Hell, why shouldn’t they be? There’s a whole cottage industry of think-tank “experts” and contractor parasites making a good living off selling the fear factor to the chumps.”

* We assess that al-Qa’ida’s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the US population. The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices, and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles.

“Well, duh! Do you think they’re going to blow up a tree stump in the Ozarks if they can bring down the Golden Gate Bridge? That’s why we’re the intelligence professionals.”

* We assess Lebanese Hizballah, which has conducted anti-US attacks outside the United States in the past, may be more likely to consider attacking the Homeland over the next three years if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran.

“Ya think? What would we do if a threatening country were getting ready to clobber one of our NATO treaty allies – or us? That’s why Cheney’s Iran obsession is so insane: we’re creating enemies faster than we can kill them.”

* We assess that the spread of radical-especially Salafi-Internet sites, increasingly aggressive anti-US rhetoric and actions, and the growing number of radical, self-generating cells in Western countries indicate that the radical and violent segment of the West’s Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States. The arrest and prosecution by US law enforcement of a small number of violent Islamic extremists inside the United States- who are becoming more connected ideologically, virtually, and/or in a physical sense to the global extremist movement-points to the possibility that others may become sufficiently radicalized that they will view the use of violence here as legitimate. We assess that this internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe, however.

“This is something any well-informed newspaper reader could infer, but let’s put it in because it sounds sinister and authoritative.”

* We assess that other, non-Muslim terrorist groups-often referred to as “single-issue” groups by the FBI-probably will conduct attacks over the next three years given their violent histories, but we assess this violence is likely to be on a small scale.

“The West Wing wanted us explicitly to mention eco-terrorists and the nuts who damage animal experiment labs because Big Pharma and the timber interests keep reminding Bush how they own him. But we managed to win on this one. I just reminded them that some people think Operation Rescue is a terrorist group.”

* We assess that globalization trends and recent technological advances will continue to enable even small numbers of alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources to attack-all without requiring a centralized terrorist organization, training camp, or leader.

“This one drove DOD nuts. They said it makes a big, expensive conventional military like ours about as obsolete as a Curve Dash Oldsmobile. I wonder if anyone on the Hill will pick up on this?”

* The ability to detect broader and more diverse terrorist plotting in this environment will challenge current US defensive efforts and the tools we use to detect and disrupt plots. It will also require greater understanding of how suspect activities at the local level relate to strategic threat information and how best to identify indicators of terrorist activity in the midst of legitimate interactions.

“That jackass Addington insisted we put that in there to justify the illegal wiretapping.”

WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.