Secrecy News

DNI Discourages Declassification of Intel Estimates

Although summary accounts of several National Intelligence Estimates have recently been declassified and published, this should not become standard practice, the Director of National Intelligence declared last week.

“It is the policy of the Director of National Intelligence that KJs [the Key Judgments from National Intelligence Estimates] should not be declassified,” DNI J. Michael McConnell wrote (pdf).

“No predisposition to declassify KJs should exist in drafting an NIE or its KJs. Any decision to declassify will be made by the DNI and only after he and other National Intelligence Board principals have reviewed and approved the entire NIE.”

“There is both a real and a perceived danger that analysts will adopt less bold approaches, or otherwise modify the way they characterize developments, and that the integrity of the NIE process could be harmed by expectations that all or portions of the NIE are likely to be declassified,” the DNI asserted.

See “Guidance on Declassification of National Intelligence Estimate Key Judgments,” memo to the Intelligence Community Workforce, October 24, 2007.

The new policy was first reported by Pamela Hess of the Associated Press.

Robert Jervis, the distinguished political scientist who advises the CIA on declassification policy, said that he supported the DNI’s position.

With declassification, “you make the pressures of politicization that much greater,” he told the Associated Press. “When you are writing an executive summary it’s hard not to ask ‘How is this sentence going to read in The New York Times?'”

But Michael Tanji, a veteran U.S. intelligence employee, disputed that view. “Having contributed to more than one of these in my career, I’m here to tell you, public opinion does not enter into the calculus,” he wrote in the Danger Room blog.

0 thoughts on “DNI Discourages Declassification of Intel Estimates

  1. Steven,

    I spent over 32 years with CIA, many of them drafting or contributing directly to the drafting and coordination of NIEs. And Bob Jervis is right. When the NIO begins work on the KJs, and again when the NFIB discusses the Estimate, they don’t expect to see their handiwork in the press. But in high-profile cases, they do concern themselves with that possibility. And if they knew up front that the KJs were likely to be released, that knowledge, as Bob Jervis states, would impact on the directness and clarity of the KJs. NIEs are just that – estimates about events that might transpire. Those judgments are based on as much evidence and analysis (note the difference) as possible. But they are still estimates about the future. As it is, a major concern within the policy community over the years has always been the impact of NIEs on any given Department’s budget or its favorite policy. It is hard enough for the NIOs to fight that problem. They do not need to have to worry about the press parsing every phrase before enough time has passed to determine even if the judgments were correct.

    There are good reasons for some government materials to be classified, and for some even to remain classified over a long period of time. Very few reasonable people would argue that over-classification is not a problem. It is. That said, the fix is not to release materials that jeopardize sources, methods or sensitive policy issues as they are being considered. Woodrow Wilson was simply wrong. All national policy cannot be properly be made openly in public, if one wishes that policy to be successful. There are provisions for policy debate within governmental circles, and in the broader public. There are also provisions for Congressional oversight, both in camera and in public. If the governmental bodies follow these procedures, then inappropriate release of classified material will not assist the development of sound policy. And if governmental bodies do not follow those procedures, then action should be taken to make them do so, either in the courts or in the ballot box. That is how the system is supposed to work.

    I would also like to take you to task for another ill-considered remark you made the other day in Secrecy News regarding the publication of the NFIP bottom line figure. You drew the unwarranted inference that since nothing bad had happened since the release of that figure, then clearly the argument against it was spurious. Now reasonable men/women can disagree about the release of that figure (and I happen to think it will do no significant harm over time). But clearly enough time has not elapsed to draw any conclusion as to the potential damage to national security from that release. You are a really smart guy, and I find your Secrecy News incredibly valuable. In general, I think you are providing a valuable service to those in America who care to know what’s happening in national security. But on occasion you do overstate your position, or as I like to say, you engage in “creeping validity.”

    Keep up the good work and thanks for allowing replies such as this.

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