229. Memorandum From the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (Helms) to the Director of the Office of National Estimates, Central Intelligence Agency (Kent)1

SUBJECT

  • National Intelligence Estimates
1.
As you take off on holiday, I want to leave with you some thoughts which we can discuss on your return. This is nothing more sinister than my initial reactions after three months in this new job.
2.
National Intelligence Estimates have long been, and correctly, regarded as that single intelligence document which best summarizes [Page 505]the trends of a given situation so that the user can foresee the most likely course of future events. The Director and I are the penultimate users of all our intelligence publications, of which the most important are the National Intelligence Estimates and Special National Intelligence Estimates. The ultimate user must be the President and his small circle of advisors—including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense.
3.
My purpose in writing this note is to raise, frankly, the question of whether the estimates are so written as to serve the ultimate user best.
4.
Estimates include a great deal of basic information and argumentation which are needed by staff people to shore-up the conclusions and judgments which are then highlighted in the summaries of the estimates. Estimates are carefully coordinated; the main instrument of coordination seems to be agreement on shadings of verbal meanings. Estimates are on special occasions directly responsive to specific requests, such as the recent series of projected United States courses of action in connection with Vietnam.
5.
Granting all the above, I should like to offer up ways in which we can make the estimates more useful. How about the following:
a.
Estimates do not lend themselves to oral presentation. Often a briefing is the first and only chance that the Director and I have to make the main estimate point to the President and his advisors.
b.

Estimates are seldom, if ever, responsive in advance. There does not seem to be an organized effort to identify in advance those courses of action open to the United States which will provide reactions by the Communists. For example, in the Director’s instructions to Peer de Silva in establishing the Vietnamese Affairs Staff, the Director asked specifically that Peer try to keep “at least one step ahead” where United States actions were contemplated or planned.

(I believe the Director’s purpose in defining a range of options open to the United States in connection with Vietnam was a good first attempt to try to define in advance those actions or lack of actions by the United States which we needed to consider to the exclusion of certain others.)

c.
I recognize that the oral presentation which I have mentioned above must be supported by written argument. I suggest that an “executive summary”, if it may be so termed, be prepared. This would state very briefly the exact nature of the problem and single out the most likely judgment which the estimate is advancing.
d.
There must always be a complete separation of policy and intelligence. I believe it is this thesis which underlays Abbot Smith’s statement that no NIE has or will say that the Communists are winning in Vietnam. [Page 506]On the other hand, there has always been and should be the closest possible contact between policy and intelligence, and it is one of the heaviest responsibilities of the Director to make an intelligence presentation closely responsive to United States policy and considerations. Therefore, I believe that an intimate knowledge of United States policy can only improve the quality of the estimate. Such knowledge would also permit the estimators to keep “one step ahead”.
e.
In connection with the above, I believe that the senior members of the Board of National Estimates can be most useful in their conversations with senior Government officials by identifying those problem areas where a course of United States action seems likely and needs to be estimated.
6.
As you can see, although I have long regarded the estimates as a bulwark of our knowledge of forthcoming situations, I am now concerned about presenting this product to the President and his advisors who need short, sharp answers. I know that the estimates are often answers to long and fuzzy questions. I do believe, however, we can do much more to refine the questions and thus refine the nature of our answers.
Richard Helms 2
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, DCI (Helms) Files, Job 80–B01285A, Helms Chron as DDP and DDCI. Secret. A note on the memorandum reads: “On 6 Aug Mr. Helms showed this memo to the Director.” Helms sent Kent another copy of his August 5 memorandum under cover of a December 10 memorandum in which Helms wrote, referring to the August 5 memorandum: “I know you will agree with me that the importance of this subject has not diminished, and I do not mean to suggest for a moment that you have not given it thought. I simply wish to underline that we must not lose sight of this objective at a time when the request for meaningful answers to serious problems are coming thicker and faster than ever before. I continue to be concerned that an estimate which is discursive and interlarded with ’uncrisp’ footnotes will not receive the attention it deserves.” A handwritten note on the original of the December 10 memorandum, in Kent’s files, reads: “Dick has not forgotten.” (Ibid., D/ONE Files, Job 80–R01621R, Box 1, Folder 15)
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.