Courtesy Reuters

Peering into the Future


As the Soviet Union, Germany and the Middle East have recently reminded us, no one knows the future. Yet, consciously or not, foreign policy makers constantly make predictions. Will a foreign leader act rationally? Will an allied country be reliable? The consequences of wrong guesses can be catastrophic, so policymakers turn to national intelligence for help. Despite the end of the Cold War, the need for good intelligence estimates continues.

Intelligence analysts sift through reams of information, trying to sort the accurate from the erroneous, and when not enough facts are available, estimating what the picture would look like if all the facts were available. Current intelligence, intelligence about current events, is mainly reportorial and interpretive: "Saddam Hussein lambasted the U.S. government again yesterday. He seems to be trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Paris." While the line often blurs, estimative intelligence is more concerned with what might be or might happen: "Is Iraq still hiding weapons of mass destruction? Will Saddam still be in power a year from now?" Like all kinds of intelligence, estimative intelligence starts with the available facts, but then it trespasses into the unknown and the unknowable, the regions where we simply lack facts. Is it any wonder that national intelligence estimates are sometimes wrong?

Why take the risks? Why not stick strictly to the facts? One reason is that facts about crucial international issues are rarely conclusive. There is often enough evidence to indict, rarely enough to convict. Yet policymakers are under enormous pressure to make decisions. In some cases they can wait for more information, but in others waiting is itself a decision with irreversible consequences. In the words of a White House official, "Insight is more scarce than information." To help policymakers interpret the available facts, to suggest alternative patterns that available facts might fit, to provide informed assessments of the range and likelihood of possible outcomes, these are the roles of estimative intelligence.

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