209. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State (Richardson)1


  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • Richard Helms
  • David Packard
  • Ray S. Cline


  • Improving the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs and SNIEs)

From my first days in this job the national estimates proved to be a source of education and guidance in judging issues and reaching policy conclusions. They have also been, and remain, a source of some puzzlement. On the one hand, they seem to encapsule more information by far than they convey to the reader. On the other, they often seem to elude questions at the heart of the policy problem at issue. I cannot help feeling that the great care in thought and drafting that goes into the estimates should result in a more useful product.

General complaints of this sort are often heard. But a general complaint contributes little toward making the estimates more useful. I [Page 445] think, therefore, that we should undertake a systematic study of what we need and would like to get from the estimates—and what our contribution might be in making that possible. The focus would be on the problems and role of the users of the estimates. This only addresses half the question, of course, leaving the problems on the producers’ side to be tackled by the intelligence community itself.

For the study to succeed, it must be more flexible and penetrating than a “user survey.” I have in mind an approach based on interviews with both senior intelligence users and their staffs. These should be discussions in depth, starting from a suitably structured set of questions, by encouraging the respondents to introduce questions, criticisms and ideas of their own. The study would be useful even if the interviews were limited to the Department of State, but would be greatly enhanced if done on an inter-agency basis.

The design of the study needs careful thought and staffing. Without prejudice to it, I would like to give some of my impressions about the strengths and weaknesses of the estimates and some illustrations of the kinds of questions I would have liked posed, were I among those to be interviewed.

I. Impressions of the Estimates: Their Strengths Give Rise to their Weaknesses.

As I see it, the fundamental strength of the national estimates is their objectivity, the care taken to make them reliable within the limits of the art, a degree of concensus which facilitates inter-agency agreement on policy, and the packaging of a large body of information and wisdom in a brief and nontechnical form. It would be a major error to sacrifice these strengths in pursuit of marginal improvements in the estimates. The strengths must be preserved, but we should equally be forthright in recognizing the ways in which they now constrain the estimating process and the usefulness of the resulting estimates.

For example, the traditional arms-length relationship between the intelligence producer and the policymaker may protect objectivity by paying the price of estimates that lack relevance to the problems of policy. How can the estimators go to the heart of the problem if they are overly insulated from the analysis and concerns that motivate the policymakers? Reliability is important, both for the producer and the user, but it is sometimes achieved by hedging and qualifications that dissipate the substance of the estimate. Inter-agency agreement is valuable when it is real, but not when it is obtained by cannibalizing differences or evading difficult questions. Finally, brevity aims to make the findings more accessible to a busy reader, but may also make it more difficult for him to appraise the underpinnings and uncertainties of the analysis. Given the kinds of staff support now available to senior people, are current formats still desirable?

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I do not mean to underestimate either the value of the estimates as now prepared or the difficulties of correcting the weaknesses I have just listed. I doubt, though, that it is beyond our ingenuity to find better procedures, better formats and a more productive relationship between estimators and users. We could provide support on a broader front for future rounds of improvements by canvassing our own needs and ability to contribute more systematically and thoughtfully than hitherto.

I have asked my staff to come up with questions and comments relating to the estimates and have attached them for your consideration.2 I realize that some of their comments, as well as some of what I have expressed above, were previously set forth by the Department in considering the improvement of the Soviet military estimates but I have included these points in the interests of comprehensiveness.3

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 330 76 67, 350.059 (Alpha) 1070. Secret.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. Marshall forwarded Richardson’s memorandum to Kissinger under cover of a June 30 memorandum which commented that Richardson had raised many of the important and pertinent issues concerning the usefulness of NIEs and recommended that Kissinger take the initiative to get the study proposed by Richardson started. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Agency Files, Box 282, Dept of State, Vol. VII, 2 May 70–30 Jun 70)