Formed in 1979, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) works to provide policymakers with the U.S. intelligence community’s best judgments on crucial international issues. As a locus for coordinated intelligence analysis, the NIC’s work reflects the coordinated judgments of multiple agencies and departments in the broader intelligence community. But while it may be less shrouded in secrecy than many other intelligence offices, in some respects it is less well known.
In Truth to Power, published by Oxford University Press, editors Robert Hitchings and Gregory Treverton shed light on this little-understood intelligence agency. The volume provides the first-ever history of the NIC as recounted through the reflections of its eight chairs in the period from the end of the Cold War until 2017. APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar, who chaired the NIC from 2005 to 2008, is one of the contributors to the book.
In his chapter “New Mission, New Challenges”, Fingar discusses some of the challenges during his service with the agency. In particular, he reflects on two specific obstacles he faced during his tenure: executing the intelligence reforms drafted in the wake of 9/11, and repairing damage done to the NIC’s credibility by the failures of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
During his tenure, Fingar wore not one but two hats; along with the NIC chairmanship, he concurrently served as deputy director of national intelligence for analysis (DDNI/A). He describes actions taken not only to restore confidence in the intelligence community, but also to effectively execute its expanded brief. For instance, having national intelligence officers take the DDNI’s seat at meetings afforded senior officials the opportunity to perceive their value and thereby rebuild confidence in the broader intelligence community.
The Council’s reforms would soon be put to the test by way of the production of an NIE on Iranian WMD. Fingar recognized that the estimate would be a strong indicator of whether the NIC had learned its lessons following the flawed 2002 Iraq WMD estimate, and that policymakers were certain to finely examine the end product for flaws (whether made unintentionally or with political purposes in mind). As such, Fingar needed to produce an NIE that was accurate, timely, and non-political, all while handling and incorporating newly received intelligence. Through the Iran NIE, Fingar found an opportunity to redress the often-fraught relationship between Congress and the intelligence community.
Fingar closes with a review of the NIC’s pathbreaking work in the area of climate change. At the behest of a U.S. senator, the NIC took on the task of producing an NIE on the strategic implications of climate change. The resulting study categorized countries according to both their vulnerabilities and ability to manage impacts, as well as the broader implications it had for U.S. national security over the next twenty years. And while policymakers ultimately did not use the report as Fingar had hoped, he takes justified comfort in pointing out how it laid the groundwork for additional reports that followed, such as the National Research Council’s 2013 report Climate Change and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis.