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Remarks 12/04/96

Remarks by John E. Mclaughlin
Vice Chairman for Estimates, National Intelligence Council
Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
4 December 1996

Senator Specter and other Members of the Committee, I propose to summarize very briefly for you the statement we have submitted for the record.

Serious issues are on the table today. Clearly, the subject of the Estimate in question -- our vulnerability to missile attack - - is of supreme importance to our country. But it is also not inconsequential that the findings of this Estimate have come under sharp attack, along with the professional integrity of those who prepared it. I intend to address all of these by focusing on three areas: what this Estimate actually says, the process by which it was produced, and then I would like to respond to some of the criticism it has received. By way of preface, I would say that after a year of criticism, we still regard this Estimate as a sound intelligence product -- one that reports clearly the results of analytic work in response to the questions of those who requested it.

What the Estimate Says . . .

What is this Estimate about? It seeks to gauge the threat to North America, including Canada and all 50 of our states, from emerging missile forces in the world. Because Russia and China are extensively covered in other intelligence studies, this Estimate was not designed to deal in detail with their missile forces, other than to note two things: first, that unauthorized launch of Chinese or Russian missiles remains a remote possibility and, second, that we would become more concerned in the event of a severe internal crisis in either country. And as with all National Intelligence Estimates, this one sought to project events over a certain period of time, in this case 15 years.

What does the Estimate conclude?

Finally, the fact that we project out 15 years does not mean that we can safely dismiss this subject until well into the next century. This is one of the highest priorities of the Intelligence Community. Our analytic work will continue; we will monitor developments, pursue collection, and bring to the attention of the President and the Congress new information and analysis on this important subject.

How was the Estimate Produced?

National Intelligence Estimates are unique in many ways. First, they represent the views of the entire Intelligence Community, not just a single agency or analyst. Eight separate agencies contributed in various ways to producing this Estimate. Each Estimate is discussed and approved at a meeting of the most senior leaders of the Intelligence Community.

Second, Estimates strive to ensure the presentation of all viewpoints. We do not impose consensus; in fact, we are charged by the Director of Central Intelligence with bringing out and sharpening differences on key issues. Such disagreements are recorded in the text. This Estimate was no exception, although the differences among experts were not great.

Third, Estimates are also unique in that they focus more consistently on future trends than most intelligence analysis and, in doing so, they strive to reduce the uncertainties for our policymakers on the most contentious issues facing them.

Now, analysts preparing Estimates have to wrestle with a number of difficult conceptual dilemmas, and how we deal with these often affects the reception an Estimate gets, as has been the case with this one, I believe. We struggle constantly, for example, to balance the harried policymaker’s demand for brevity against our temptation to lay out all the evidence to support our often controversial judgments. When we conclude we should lay out the evidence, we must balance this against the risk of unauthorized disclosure. At the same time, we must balance the reader’s desire for clarity in judgment against the need to note the uncertainties, gaps, qualifiers, and alternative outcomes. When we go too far in the latter direction, it leads to charges that we are waffling. In the case of the present Estimate, we may have leaned too far toward brevity. No one has accused us, though, of waffling. Indeed, while some have criticized the Estimate for too little emphasis on uncertainties, others have praised it for not obfuscating or seeking refuge in the "lowest common denominator" view. All of which has contributed to the controversy.

Which leads me to my final point about Estimates. When I was a very junior analyst some years ago, the country’s most senior practitioner of Estimates responded to my query about the purpose of the business by noting simply that it was above all to (quote) "raise the level of debate about the future" (unquote). His point was that controversy about Estimates is not necessarily bad, that intelligence Estimates (because they deal with the future) must never be portrayed as the last word or "revealed wisdom," and that policymakers and intelligence analysts ultimately benefit from the very thorough airing of the issue. And it is in that spirit that we come here today, Mr. Chairman.

Regarding Criticism . . .

In closing, I will not take time to go through every critical comment about the estimate, but I would like to give you our perspective on three of the more sweeping charges we have heard over the last year.

By far the most serious is that the conclusions of the Estimate were politically influenced, that we in essence took orders from someone in the political arena rather than living up to the most basic tenet of our profession, that is to "call it as we see it." This is the most serious charge that you can level at an intelligence officer, and I cannot let the occasion pass without rejecting it in the strongest terms. I state categorically that there was no attempt by Administration officials to shape or modify the judgments in the Estimate at any time. Like it or not, it is purely the work of highly professional, independent, and dedicated intelligence analysts. And I believe their judgments were and remain very sound.

A second and presumably related criticism is that we have reversed assessments of recent years without sufficient justification, that irrespective of the evidence, we have dropped earlier warnings in favor of a more benign scenario. This, too, is unfounded. Yes, some projections of missile developments were extended by a few years, but this was in response to new information that I could detail in another setting. Moreover, the thrust of the judgment in this Estimate is consistent with government assessments published in 1993 and later, including one published by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in July 1995. I also note that the GAO review of the Estimate concluded it is not inconsistent with the two NIEs published in 1993.

And finally, there is the criticism that the Estimate did not address threats to all of the United States, particularly Hawaii and Alaska. This has always puzzled us, because the second key judgment of the Estimate clearly describes the potential threat to Alaska and Hawaii. With regard to most of the matters in the Estimate, however, the threat to Alaska and Hawaii is not greater than for the rest of the US and therefore is not spelled out separately.

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to make these points, and my colleague and I will welcome your questions. With me today is, Dr. David Osias, the National Intelligence Officer for Strategic Programs and Nuclear-Proliferation, who oversaw production of this Estimate.