National Intelligence Estimates

The history, rationale, and limitations of the National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. intelligence community’s most authoritative and coordinated written assessment of national security issues.

Last updated May 14, 2008

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A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) represents the U.S. intelligence community’s most authoritative and coordinated written assessment of a specific national-security issue. The concept of an “estimative” intelligence report was established by the National Security Act of 1947 following the surprise invasion of South Korea by North Korean troops. Since its creation the NIE process has undergone a series of overhauls to increase interagency collaboration. Today as many as seventeen government agencies and departments participate in drafting the documents.

But as former intelligence officer Robert L. Suettinger notes in his history of the NIE, intelligence estimates are by definition controversial products. “In discussing large or complex topics,” Suettinger writes, “National Intelligence Estimates necessarily have to delve into a realm of speculation.” The most cited recent example of a poorly drafted NIE is the October 2002 prewar estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (PDF). In July 2004, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee found that “most of the major key judgments” in the 2002 Iraq NIE—which were cited by President Bush and other policymakers in their case for war—“either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting.” Changes made to the NIE process after the 2002 Iraq report have been incorporated into recent estimates, including the November 2007 assessment of Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Intelligence Gatekeepers

Intelligence estimates are coordinated by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and is the intelligence community’s “center for mid-term and long-term strategic thinking.” The NIC employs thirteen National Intelligence Officers—senior experts drawn from agencies of the intelligence community and from outside the government—who, among their other responsibilities, head up the NIE writing process. The current chairman of the NIC is Thomas Fingar, who also serves as deputy director of national intelligence for analysis.

The NIE Writing Process

The NIE process from inception to completion progresses as follows:

  • A senior executive branch official, a committee chair of the House or Senate, or a senior military official can request an NIE. An estimate can also be initiated independently by the National Intelligence Council. The request is authorized by the Director of National Intelligence.
  • The NIC prepares the terms of reference, an outline of the key issues, and questions to be covered in the estimate.
  • Before an NIE is drafted the intelligence officer produces a terms of reference paper, or TOR, meant to define the key questions the NIE is to address; sets drafting responsibilities; and establishes a publication schedule. The TOR is circulated throughout the intelligence community for comment.
  • The intelligence officer selects a lead drafter of the NIE or directs another intelligence analyst or outside expert to do so. The draft is typically reviewed by the NIC before it is sent to the U.S. government agencies that are members of the intelligence community, or compile national intelligence on the relevant issue.
  • Agency experts review the draft and prepare comments.
  • Agency representatives meet and discuss the report at an interagency coordination session.
  • Intelligence is vetted by the National Clandestine Service within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to eliminate potentially questionable or unreliable sources. 
  • A final draft is distributed for final review to intelligence community experts for their review. In addition, the NIE often includes a summary of the opinions of experts outside the government.
  • The NIC reviews the final draft and then forwards it to the National Intelligence Board (PDF). The board is composed of senior representatives of the intelligence community and is chaired by the DNI.
  • Once an NIE is approved by the National Intelligence Board it is delivered to the requester as well as the president, senior policymakers, and relevant members of Congress.

Up to seventeen agencies and departments are generally involved in the process. They include:

The Time Factor

Before the 2002 Iraq estimate prompted changes in NIE drafting guidelines, the time frame for completion varied widely. The July 2004 Senate report describes three rough time frames for drafting: a “fast track” of two to three weeks, a “normal track” of four to eight weeks, and a “long track” of two months or more. The NIE on Iraq’s weapons program was completed in less than three weeks. But out time for recent intelligence estimates has increased significantly. The NIE on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, for instance, took seventeen months to finalize and underwent a last-minute review after new intelligence was received by analysts in June 2007.

Recent NIE Contributions

The intelligence community drafts NIE documents covering a wide range of issues; hundreds have been written in the last six decades. Suettinger writes that 1,500 estimates were produced between 1950 and 1973 alone. Most recent NIE assessments, however, have remained classified. Intelligence estimates that do reach the public domain are typically declassified key judgments, not the entire NIE. Since 2006 DNI has released key judgments on trends in global terrorism (PDF); the terrorist threat to the homeland (PDF); two NIEs on prospects for stability in Iraq (PDF); as well as the Iran nuclear NIE. The president and the director of national intelligence have the authority to declassify all or part of an NIE.

Controversy Surrounding 2002 NIE on Iraq

Drawing partly from existing agency and interagency papers, the prewar estimate on Iraq’s weapons program determined that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program,” “has chemical and biological weapons,” and was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle “probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents.” Yet most of the key judgments have since been debunked as inaccurate, false, or misleading. 

The principal reason for the failure was faulty analysis based on outdated intelligence. According to the Senate committee’s July 2004 report, analysts who wrote the NIE relied more on an assumption that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) than on an objective evaluation of the information they were reviewing. This group-think dynamic, the report states, led analysts, intelligence collectors, and managers to “interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program” and led them to “ignore or minimize evidence that Iraq did not have an active and expanding program.” This problem was compounded by a lack of reliable information from inside Iraq. After UN weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998, the U.S. intelligence community did not have any human intelligence sources in Iraq collecting information about WMD.

Other criticism included poor information sharing among intelligence agencies, substandard management, and a stepped-up time frame due to the threat of war. President George W. Bush asked Congress in mid-September 2002 to pass a resolution granting the U.S. broad authority to use military action against Iraq. But no NIE existed on the status of Iraq’s WMD program and much uncertainty surrounded the claims being made by Bush administration officials regarding the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD. In requesting the NIE on “an immediate basis,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote to the director of central intelligence that she “deeply believe[d] that such an estimate is vital to congressional decision-making, and most specifically, [to] any resolution which may come before the Senate.”

Not all agencies involved concurred with the NIE’s conclusions. Two footnotes have come to public attention. In one, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research dissented from the intelligence community’s majority view that Baghdad was reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program, saying there was not enough evidence to reach that conclusion. In particular, it raised doubts about whether a large shipment of aluminum tubes sought by Iraq was intended for centrifuges to enrich nuclear fuel, as asserted by other agencies. In another footnote, the U.S. Air Force’s director for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance questioned whether the unmanned aerial vehicles being developed by Iraq were “probably” intended to deliver biological agents. Instead, he said that would be an unlikely mission for such aircraft.

Changes in the Wake of Failure

The most significant change to the NIE process following the botched Iraq WMD estimate was increasing the opportunity for interagency collaboration. Additional changes made since mid-2006 include the mandatory review of sources by the National Clandestine Service, and a concerted effort, according to the office of the DNI, “to highlight difference among agencies” and “explain the reasons for such differences.” The changes reflect concerns raised by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction in the wake of the 2002 Iraq estimate. Criticisms from that commission included a concern that vague language “may obscure situations in which the dissenting agency has more expertise than the majority.” A December 2007 Congressional Research Service report on the usefulness of intelligence estimates to lawmakers notes that over-reliance on NIE conclusions has its pitfalls (PDF).

Intelligence on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Changes to the NIE process are most evident in the community’s estimate on Iranian nuclear capabilities. The classified estimate is said to be roughly 140 pages long and includes extensive sourcing footnotes and alternative hypotheses. In terms of tradecraft the Iran nuclear NIE is said to be the most rigorous ever produced. Among the estimate’s conclusions are judgments that Tehran continues to enrich uranium for declared civilian use; and that it is keeping its options for restarting its weapons program open. But the finding that generated the most attention was the intelligence community’s “high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. Some outside observers suggested the intelligence community was taking a preemptive strike against the Bush administration, seen as determined to rush to war with Tehran. Intelligence officials have denied the charges.

Ever if history does judge the Iran NIE bulletproof, intelligence community officials say they are ready to scrap the practice of publicly releasing NIE key judgments. NIC Chairman Fingar, speaking at CFR in March 2008, said the intelligence community has actively resisted Congress’s calls for declassifying past and future estimates. “We pushed back” on most of the demands, he said. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, also opposes the public dissemination of key judgments. He said in April 2008 he had no intention (ABC) of making his agency’s latest product—an Iraq NIE update—available for public consumption.

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